The leader of the UK Prison Officers’ Association (POA – The Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional & Secure Psychiatric Workers) has said that prisoners should not be allowed out of their cells to play “meaningless games of pool and table tennis”.
Mark Fairhurst, the trade union’s national chair, spoke out amid a continuing debate over the shape of prison regimes – the hours prisoners spend each day at work, in education, socialising or locked in their cells.
Since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, prisoners have been locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. In May the Prison Service announced an end to most Covid restrictions, leaving it up to governors to introduce new regimes.
The POA claims that jails were safer during the pandemic and has called for an end to “association periods”, during which whole wings of prisoners are let out of their cells to mix freely with one another. However, HM Inspectorate of Prisons has called for prisoners to spend longer out of their cells, and has accused governors of displaying “post-Covid torpor” by being slow to reintroduce normal regimes.
The Ministry of Justice announced a reform programme called Future Regime Design during the pandemic lockdowns, but said it would take two years to reach conclusions.
Addressing the issue in a circular to prison officers, Fairhurst wrote: “I have consistently reiterated to POA members and local committees that the National Executive Committee are against returning to pre-Covid regimes, do not advocate full wing unlocks and wish to abandon pointless association periods that include meaningless games of ‘pool’ and ‘table tennis’. In order to ‘build back better’ we must learn from past mistakes and regimes.”
He said the POA would prefer to see “small, manageable unlock numbers that encourage staff engagement, give us the ability to respond to incidents and ensure regimes are safe”. He urged POA branches that were unhappy about regime progression to make national officials aware of their situation – but conceded that none had yet done so.