June 22, 2020

HMP Guys Marsh: Prison During Lockdown

Ian Walters
Governing Governor
HMP Guys Marsh

I was honoured to be appointed as Governing Governor of HMP Guys Marsh in September last year and I could never have anticipated in the early days of this role the challenges that we would face just 6 months later. The Covid-19 pandemic almost overnight changed our day-to-day working practices, affected nearly all aspects of our well-established prison regime and required us to think very differently about how we kept staff and prisoners safe.

Prisons are complex environments and daily regimes were quickly replaced with a limited offer, which prioritised meals, healthcare, time in the open air, showers, prisoner safety wellbeing and family contact. All non-essential services were curtailed as the national Covid-19 response established the seriousness of the pandemic and the potential impact to those living and working within custodial settings. We really did throw the rule book in the bin and start again!

Throughout my career, I have always been proud of the ability of our prison service to step up when things get tough and meet operational challenges head on with determination, professionalism and humour. These attributes have served HMP Guys Marsh well in recent times. They helped us to implement a wide range of measures to prevent Covid-19 cases within the prison. This included establishing social distancing, changing our entry and exit processes, cohorting men in their individual residential units and working with a range of key stakeholders to ensure our response to any suspected cases is managed effectively.

Beyond implementing a restricted regime, the team have worked tirelessly to improvise and find new ways of working to maintain staff/prisoner relationships which are the bedrock of all we achieve in our prisons. In-cell education packs and supporting local hospitals by making scrubs bags are just some of the ways we have kept individuals occupied and maintained good relationships. We have utilised in-cell telephones to enable socially distanced activities to continue including appointments with Healthcare, contact with prison offender managers for continuity of parole/sentence planning, as well as bible studies with the Chaplaincy. These are aspects of today’s regime that I could not have conceived we would have needed in our prison three months ago!

As well as the men having to adapt to the restrictive regime, staff have had to develop new skills and embraced new opportunities brought about by COVID. Instructional Officer GH is working with men in a Covid-19 scrubs bag workshop. “The most challenging element is getting myself up to speed with the sewing as I am not a seamstress so I have enjoyed the learning process. Bags were easy, scrub uniforms are something else, very complicated but we are all getting there. The most rewarding aspect for me is working with the men and seeing how they very quickly pick things up. I am so super proud of them all.”

It has also presented challenges for our officers around how they maintain good relationships with men within the new regime. Officer KJ has worked throughout the Covid pandemic… “Although the time out of their cell is limited, we are spending more time talking to each prisoner and supporting them with issues they have.  The relationship we had built before this pandemic between staff and prisoners was already a trusted one, so we built on that while we have had so many limits on the regime. This has led to a deeper knowledge of each prisoner and have hopefully changed that for the long haul when this lockdown has been lifted and we can return to some degree of normality.  Prisoners have been mostly very compliant in engaging with the rules of social distancing. They have reminded us at times about washing our hands!!”

It has been particularly hard for those men shielding during this time, spending almost all their time in their cells. Mr B has been shielding since the end of March... “The simplest things can offer comfort. For me, mealtime has taken on a disproportionate significance to any day. This may not be the view of the majority, but I love the food and count down the time between meals.”

We continue to look ahead and we are planning ways to expand our regime in the coming weeks. We continue to keep staff, prisoners and their families informed through regular newsletters and our Twitter page, please do follow us @HMPGuysMarsh. Our #hiddenheroes have really appreciated the support and encouragement through social media and you never know, you might even see this Governor in the latest Tik-Tok challenge!

Stay safe and well in these extraordinary times!

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