Written evidence submitted by Independent Monitoring Boards

About IMBs

Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) are an important part of the independent oversight of prisons; they are appointed by ministers under the Prison Act 1952. IMB members are a regular presence, visiting the establishment, monitoring the treatment and conditions of prisoners, reporting what they find to those running the prison, and dealing with queries and concerns from individual prisoners. They are unpaid but have statutory powers that grant them unrestricted access.

IMB monitoring of prisons during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 emergency, IMBs have used new and innovative monitoring processes where visits had to be curtailed or reduced in frequency for public health reasons; including surveys and telephone and email contact with prisoners and a freephone line.


This submission presents IMB findings from the latest published 2019/20 annual reports and regular updates provided by Boards since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.



Key points pre-COVID


Key points during the COVID-19 pandemic


IMB annual report findings on education in prisons 2019/20 (pre-COVID)


There were some concerns about the new education contracts, but also some positive findings:





Local prisons[1]

Availability and access to purposeful activity, however, remained very variable, particularly in prisons taking prisoners directly from court.


For example:








Training and resettlement prisons

Even training and resettlement prisons sometimes struggled to provide enough, or good enough quality, education and training. Boards identified three principal problems:



Some examples:






Where there was sufficient provision in training prisons, it was not always fully utilised:






There was a more positive picture among training prisons holding men convicted of sexual offences:






Among women’s prisons, there was usually a wide variety of provision, though sometimes insufficient for the population.


Concerns raised by boards included:





There were examples of good practice:





Young adults

Education and training are particularly important for young adults, both to reduce educational deficits and to keep a potentially volatile population occupied.

Board findings in these establishments revealed a mixed picture:





Young people

Education should be central to the work of establishments holding young people under 18. Boards again reported a mixed picture:






IMB findings on education provision in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic


Since March 2020, education in all prisons has been seriously affected by the measures taken in response to the COVID pandemic.  There were three phases: the initial lockdown, in which nearly all prisoners, including some of those under 18, were locked in their cells for around 23 hours a day, and education staff withdrew; some relaxation in many prisons, particularly in under-18 establishments, as 2020 progressed, and the return to tight restrictions during the national lockdown in early 2021.  Progress was slowed or reversed by COVID outbreaks, staff absences and regime restrictions, though education was given a greater priority in adult prisons than during the first lockdown. In some cases, boards were told that the teaching staff wanted to resume face-to-face contact with prisoners but were not permitted to do so.


Therefore, for nearly a year, one of the key elements of prisoner rehabilitation has been severely damaged.  While this impacted on the quantity and quality of delivery in all prisons, it was also clear that those where provision and management was strongest pre-pandemic were also able to mitigate some of the damage and retain some elements of targeted individual learning.


In the early days of the first lockdown, even some under-18 establishments were able to provide very little, and though this improved it was still significantly less than what had previously been provided, or was needed.





In the adult estate, as lockdown restrictions gradually eased, many education providers still delivered only a limited service, often sporadic and generic, designed to provide distraction rather than formal education geared to individual learning plans and qualifications. There were reports of packs being delivered under cell doors by uniformed staff or ‘dumped’ on wings.








Good practice

In general, education delivery appears to have been better during the pandemic in private prisons, some of which had their own education provision:




There were also some exceptions to the general picture in public sector prisons, showing what can be achieved under good local leadership, though there were still challenges:









Some progress was made through the new education contracts pre-COVID but there were significant inconsistencies, often driven by staffing problems within both the provider and in the wider prison, or insufficiently strong leadership within the prison. IMB findings for prisons holding young adults and young people indicate that more thought needs to be given to education in non-traditional/vocational, rather than purely classroom, settings. Examples of good practice which showed innovation and creativity in difficult circumstances did not seem to be easily replicated across the estate or even within the same provider. There are some questions about the national management of the quality, as well as the quantity, of education provision.  Good quality local leadership, through education managers in individual prisons, appeared to be key in driving through improvements.


Post-COVID, it is too early to fully determine the lasting effects of the pandemic and the interruption of education delivery on the progression of prisoners, but it has essentially been a stress test that has exposed and deepened some of the concerns about consistency, quality and management referred to above.  As of February 2021, there still does not seem to be effective management of the wider national education contracts, or proactive attempts to provide individualised remote learning, in many public sector prisons across England and Wales. Those prisoners struggling before the pandemic to fully engage in education programmes, for example due to low literacy levels, language or learning difficulties, have been further disadvantaged by this disruption.

February 2021

[1] These are prisons that take prisoners directly from court, including those in the long-term high security estate.