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Staff shortages and the Covid-19 pandemic meant that prisoners were locked up for long periods in a very restrictive regime, say independent monitors.

In its annual report for 2020-1, the IMB at HMP/YOI Deerbolt says the prison’s ability to deliver a satisfactory regime was directly affected by the difficulty in retaining and recruiting new staff. Low staff numbers, together with the pandemic, led to many prisoners being left without opportunities for purposeful activity or quality dialogue with case managers.

The Board notes the following positives:

  • Successful management of the Covid-19 infection risks, with low levels of positive cases in the prison population
  • A reduction in prisoner on prisoner assaults, which could be due to fewer opportunities for interaction
  • The care and management of complex prisoners by mental health workers and segregation staff
  • The swift response to the television outage
  • The successful bike workshop and horticulture academy

However, there are areas of concern, or where there has been little or no progress:

  • Prisoners are still locked up for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes with mental health issues, and the transition to normal regimes will be challenging
  • The quality of scheduled key worker sessions, prisoner-staff interactions and the rehabilitation strategy are an ongoing concern
  • The prison has not thought ‘outside the box’ to find novel ways to challenge and engage prisoners during this period
  • Deerbolt struggles to cater for older (over-21) or more complex prisoners, as provision is more suited to 18-21-year-old young offenders

IMB Deerbolt Chair, Charlie Ing, said:

“Although an often clichéd statement, this has truly been a very challenging year for both staff and prisoners at Deerbolt. With other major employers currently recruiting in Teesdale, current prison officer terms and conditions are not competitive, and Deerbolt finds it hard to recruit staff. It has therefore struggled with both staff recruitment and retention. Both low staffing numbers and the pandemic have meant that prisoners have faced restrictions to their normal regime. This may have been bearable in the short term, but the return to more normal pre-pandemic regimes, which some prisoners and staff may have never experienced, could cause fears and anxieties about the ‘unknown’ and may drive some prisoners to seek protection within gangs.

There continue to be some success stories at Deerbolt, most notably the care which the establishment can offer to the most vulnerable individuals. Though it is disappointing that the prison did not look at novel ways to engage the population, the IMB is confident that there is an understanding of the need to move forward.”