A PRISON watchdog has found many inmates spent up to 23 hours locked-up in their cells at HMP Bullingdon because of restrictions in place to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading.

The finding comes as part of an annual Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) report for the prison near Bicester.

The IMB consists of volunteers who visit jails in England and Wales regularly to ensure they all follow the procedures that they should and that prisoners are treated with ‘decency and respect’.

After the 353 Board visits to Bullingdon prison between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020, overcrowding remained an issue and the IMB questions whether the doubling-up of many prisoners in cells designed for one occupant is ‘humane’.

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Because of a reduction in activities since lockdown leading to more time spent in cells, the Board says the ‘negative impact’ of this has been the loss of opportunities for education, employment, exercise and other undertakings that improve inmates’ health and wellbeing.

Violence levels were high pre-lockdown, with an even larger number of drugs and weapons found this year than last.

Other issues highlighted in the report include a widespread loss of prisoners’ property, both within Bullingdon and on transfer from other establishments which can contribute to frustration, stress and violence within the prison, and although prisoners are treated fairly, limited resources have affected their management.

But generally, the prison has made ‘every effort’ to minimise the limitations imposed as a result of Covid-19 rules.

Prisoners have been given more credits to use on calls they can make from their cells using telephones installed last year.

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This helped to mitigate the banning of social visits from family and friends.

Restricted social visits and video calls for prisoners using digital tablets were introduced in August, but the Board found that the use of this has been ‘disappointing’.

Since lockdown, levels of violence and self-harm - which was previously high - have reduced significantly and the IMB regards this as a success.

Vicki Talbot, IMB Bullingdon Chair, said: “Both prisoners and staff continue to face very challenging circumstances as a result of coronavirus. Their response to these difficulties is praiseworthy, especially measures such as extra credits for in-cell phone calls.

“It’s also important not to neglect issues which are unrelated to the pandemic. Staff levels must be maintained at adequate levels for the future and training enhanced. These are matters which the Board intends to raise with the Minister.”

Despite the unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic, the report says staff and officers continue to show commitment to maintain a ‘positive and decent environment’.

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The prison has an ‘effective system’ for keeping new arrivals in a period of quarantine in a designated wing and the Board commends the prison for this.

It is also impressed with a number of positive improvements and examples of good practice such as a new suite for prisoners appearing at court hearings by video-link which reduces unnecessary movements in and out of the jail, and a weekly Safety Intervention Meeting to review the care and management of individual prisoners.

A small number of staff and no prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus.

After a visit to the prison in May by Ms Talbot, she saw that steps were in place to ensure there was as much social distancing as possible.

She said the prison had sufficient quantities of soap and cleaning products for their needs, enough PPE was available and clear instructions were issued to officers to use PPE in accordance with the guidelines set out by the NHS.

Prisoners were not using communal areas such as the gym or the chapel and the gym’s changing rooms and showers were being used solely by Healthcare staff at the end of their duties.

A prison service spokesperson said: “Restrictions on daily life helped save lives and protect the NHS and have been eased since this inspection in line with the latest public health advice.

“Security at HMP Bullingdon has also been upgraded with a new body scanner recently installed.”

Since the report period ended in June domestic and legal visits, gym sessions and outdoor activities have all resumed reducing time spent in cells.

There are also now increased programmes of mandatory drug tests and dedicated searches.