Inspectors praise both staff and inmates at Gartree Prison for how they are tackling the Covid-19 emergency
“Wardens and staff at the jail are managing this unprecedented situation as well as they can and are doing so very sympathetically," said the chair of the Independent Monitoring Board
A prison watchdog chief has saluted both staff and inmates at a high-security jail near Market Harborough as they tackle the Covid-19 emergency.
Tim Norman, 70, chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Gartree Prison, said they were all pulling together amid the national health and safety crisis.
Tim told the Harborough Mail: “It’s not been easy for anyone at Gartree over the last few weeks.
“But the coronavirus is a serious threat to all of us and everyone at the jail realises that.”
He added: “Wardens and staff at the jail are managing this unprecedented situation as well as they can and are doing so very sympathetically.
“Special measures have had to be imposed across the UK’s entire prison estate to try and keep everyone safe and well.
“The inmates at Gartree are not especially happy with the situation but then none of us are.
“But they do fully understand on the whole that these restrictions are having to be enforced for the sake of everyone at the jail and they’re being pretty good about it.”
Hands-on IMB boss Tim, who lives near Market Harborough, usually spends two to three days a week at the high-profile 55-year-old prison.
But he revealed: “I haven’t been able to go into Gartree for over a month because I am 70 years old and I have an underlying health problem.
“We have seven volunteers in our local IMB group.
“We obviously cannot meet face to face at the moment.
“So we stage two meetings a month by tele-conference so we can catch up with each other and try to stay on top of things.
“I also hold regular Zoom meetings with one of our members so we are being very active and trying to stay on the ball.”
Tim said they also stay in regular touch with officials and staff at the Category-B prison which looks after hundreds of ‘lifers’.
They are murderers, killers and other serious, often vicious criminals serving life sentences stretching up to 30 years.
“We are talking to all the various key departments at Gartree.
“We get all the notices issued to governors and staff,” said Tim, former head of logistics at the RSPB.
“Our office there is right in the heart of the prison.
“So there is no way we could go there physically anyway – it’s just not worth the risk.
“Prisoners who want to talk to us about an issue can get a message to us via our IMB clerk – she’s part of the prison’s staff.
“It’s immensely frustrating, of course, not to be able to go into the prison.
“All of us are very keen and passionate about what we do.
“But we’ll just have to manage and cope as best as we can remotely for the time being.”
He said prisoners are being forced to spend more of the day locked up in their cells because of the Covid-19 crisis.
They are believed to be spending at least 20 hours a day behind bars while social distancing and extra hygiene measures are also being imposed.
“Their education classes have been suspended as well as arts and crafts lessons.
“But they are still getting exercise every day,” said Tim, who said they have about 700 prisoners and 350 staff at Gartree.
“It’s not easy but I don’t believe there have been any coronavirus cases at Gartree yet.
“And inmates understand why they have to co-operate with staff on this.”
Prison visits are also being suspended during the lockdown as the country continues to battle the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Ministry of Justice said that jails “have been working closely with public health and NHS services to put robust contingency plans in place”.
“The plans prioritise the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors.
“Existing, well-developed procedures are in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases and prisons are prepared if cases are identified,” said the MoJ.
“Plans are in place for dealing with staff absences if staff working in prisons need to self-isolate.
“Handwashing facilities are available to prisoners, staff and visitors and we have worked closely with suppliers to ensure the supply of soap and cleaning materials.
“The usual regime in prisons has been paused temporarily to apply social distancing.
“This is vital for keeping prisoners and staff safe and preventing the spread of the virus.
“This means prisoners can no longer take part in usual recreational activities such as using the gym, going to worship or visiting the library.
“Only essential workers such as kitchen staff or wing cleaners will continue with their jobs but people will still get paid.
“Support for prisoners, such as advice on in-cell worship, exercise and managing anxiety will be provided.”
If you would like to find out more about help and support available to prisoners’ families visit the Government’s website here: https://www.gov.uk/support-for-families-friends-of-prisonersYou can email the Prisoners’ Families Helpline at [email protected] or call 0808 808 2003.