HMP Preston is 'severely overcrowded' and distancing is virtually impossible according to recent report
A damning report has revealed how social distancing in many areas of Preston prison is "all but impossible" because of its cramped design and overcrowding.
Nearly all prisoners are receiving a restricted regime, with most still locked up for 22.5 hours a day, usually in shared cells not designed to hold more than one prisoner reliably.
The report revealed while most have daily access to telephones and showers, and exercise in the open air six days a week, prisoners who are symptomatic or Covid positive are allowed out of their cells for only 15 minutes a week to shower - something officials have branded "unacceptable" and "wholly avoidable".
The 18th century jail currently houses around 650 men, making it severely overcrowded, and it has emerged an early release schemes brought in to relieve pressure on places during the pandemic had been ineffective, with no prisoners at HMP Preston released following assessment.
HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) had classed the prison as a COVID-19 outbreak site until July 10.
A scrutiny report was carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons - an independent, statutory organisation which reports on the treatment and conditions of those detained in prisons.
In it HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, said some of the accommodation was deteriorating or "barely fit for purpose".
He said: "We saw few attempts by staff and prisoners to socially distance even where it was achievable.
"It was evident that it could not be run practically in line with best practices – such as the consistent separation of prisoners arriving on different days – while also delivering basic facilities, such as daily showers and telephone calls.
"While most prisoners understood the reasons for the restrictions imposed in March 2020, many told us they were confused and concerned about the possible next steps.
"There had been a lack of investment in communications technology, and the prison had no in-cell telephones or prisoner information kiosks, and no prison television channel.
"This particularly disadvantaged prisoners with literacy or language difficulties.
The report also outlined that following an initial reduction, the incidents of violence had started to increase, with the use of force increasing in May and June to levels above those before the regime had been restricted, though it has now started to reduce again.
There was evidence that some incident had resulted from prisoners being frustrated at the prolonged restrictions and a lack of purposeful activity.
However, the report was more positive about the prison's assessment, care in custody and case management for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm.
Inspectors said it was "generally reasonable", recognising there is a very high level of mental health need in the prison and that health care staff were working hard to improve services and assessments, which are stretched.
Around two-thirds of inmates there said they had mental health problems and 11 were waiting to be transferred to a secure hospital.
One-to-one work in the substance misuse recovery unit has resumed, and in a "positive" move, wing staff had supported peer workers to resume some useful group support in the prison's recovery unit.
The inspectors also observed generally good staff-prisoner relationships, and remarked the prison was clean.
It added: "Managers and staff at Preston had shown considerable resilience in managing the changing demands of the COVID-19 period. Prisoners had shown similar fortitude, although the costs to their mental health of such an extended period of restriction were increasingly evident.
"There were some obvious
changes that the prison should have made to improve matters, such as ensuring that prisoners in protective isolation had more time out of cell."
Reacting to the report, a Prison Service spokesman told the Post: “The steps we took at HMP Preston limited the spread of the virus and saved lives.
“The prison is now easing restrictions, led by public health advice, with visits resuming and time out of cell increasing.”
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Asked to hold 650 men with room for barely more than 400, Preston is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country.
"This untenable situation presents a safety risk to people living and working in the jail at any time, but it is particularly worrying during a pandemic.
"It underlines the need to reduce the prison population and ease restrictions safely.
"Cramming people into cells with nothing to do for 22 hours a day is never going to help them to turn their lives around and move on from crime."