Conversations on Criminal Justice – Hindpal Singh Bhui

Oxford MSc Criminology students, Fanny Dedenbach and Anna Milligan met virtually with Hindpal Singh Bhui on Wednesday 6th May, to discuss the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on prisons and prisoners in England and Wales. His position as Inspection Team Leader at HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) gives him a unique and expert vantage point to discuss these issues, and he was kind enough to share his recent findings and insights with them.

Hindpal told us that the experiences he had of prisons during the crisis had been different than expected. While HMIP was initially planning on staying out of prisons to minimise the risk of introducing the virus, there was a change of mind and prison managers have welcomed an independent view on whether lockdown regimes are safe and a Human Rights-based assessment.

Hindpal had expected to witness the institution in a state of crisis, with the virus ravaging the population like wildfire, leaving both physical and mental illness in its wake. Regarding the reality of prison at the time of our interview, Hindpal said “the worst predicted impact isn’t happening”. Indeed, indicators show the prison system has been managing the crisis surprisingly well, with only 21 prisoner deaths at the time of the interview, compared to approximately 30,000 in the general public. 

He described how “the regimes are very much locked down”. Most individuals are kept in their cell day and night, except for 30 minutes per day in which they are able to go out for exercise or to take a shower – usually time does not allow for both. Without visitation, socializing or regular educational and vocational activities, prisoners have been given “in-cell activity packs” to occupy their time. These range from educational courses to puzzles like sudoku and crosswords. In one prison Hindpal visited, the prisoners were participating in a creative competition in which they submitted artistic representations of their lockdown experiences.

While beneficial, these activity packs pale in comparison to the contact and engagement the prisoners would usually receive. Contrary to what Hindpal expected, however, these tight and difficult restrictions have been largely supported by the prisoners, who understand the prison managers are acting with their best interests in mind. In fact, morale was generally higher than he expected, while mental health issues and self-harm seemed to be lower; Hindpal speculates this might be a short-term reaction to a “sense of shared misery, a community of shared deprivation”.

What is still problematic is the situation that prisoners face upon release. Even during lockdown, once a prisoner reaches the end of their sentence, they have to be released, even if they are symptomatic. Unfortunately, even during the pandemic there is a severe lack of housing support for prisoners, many of whom find themselves on the streets after release. This unnecessarily exposes them to the virus which may hit them particularly hard as many prisoners have underlying mental and physical health conditions. This means that in all likelihood people who have Covid-19 were released homeless into the community putting themselves and others in danger.

In general, the prison population in England and Wales has decreased during the pandemic. This is mostly due to the courts sending fewer people to prison, partially because of a backlog in courts, as courts are not operating at full potential and partially because crime overall has gone down during lockdown. The Corona-Virus Early Temporary Release Programme, which was meant to decrease pressure on the system by releasing about 4000 low-risk offenders, however, has so far been a failure. At the time of the interview only 33 people had actually been released.

The long-term trajectory of the reaction is still unclear, however, and Hindpal suggested the results will depend largely on who is in power and how they interpret the current situation. For example, to compensate for cancelling all visitation and thus isolating prisoners from their loved ones on the outside, many prisons have been introducing iPads and other video-calling technology to facilitate more communication and lessen the burden of separation. Additionally, video-calling technologies could become cheaper alternatives to phone calls and in-person visits, particularly if inmates’ families live far away or abroad. Should their introduction go smoothly, without resulting in escape attempts or significant rates of cyber bullying in the community, there is hope that these technologies may become a permanent fixture in English prisons. This would work to decrease the stigmatizing barrier between the general public and imprisoned individuals and hopefully mitigate some of the mental health issues associated with incarceration. 

Conversely, however, Hindpal conveyed concern that the success of the total lockdown situation in prisons may signal to some that prison regimes should continue to be this restrictive. With decreases in the presence of illicit drugs and related behaviour and complications, there is a worry that policy-makers lobbying for harsher prison conditions might use these results to push their agenda. Hindpal is clear that public involvement and activism are as important as ever, and suggested that there was some room for optimism: “sometimes it does take a crisis to push positive reform”.

We concluded the interview by asking Hindpal if there was anything further that he was concerned about. His response was quick and assertive: “one thing which has been bothering me a lot recently is, the race and ethnicity angle to what’s going on at the moment”. He went on to explain that while it was clear that in the broader community there are significant ethnic and racial disparities in vulnerability to the coronavirus, there has not yet been enough data collected within prisons to see if the trend is replicated there. It is an issue Hindpal is already paying attention to and hopes that it will continue to be observed in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

We would like to thank Hindpal for taking the time to participate in our Conversation on Criminal Justice and for braving the awkwardness of a video-interview.