North Staffordshire youth jail stays coronavirus-free as governor opens up about what life’s really like for prisoners during lockdown


The governor of a young offender institute today revealed how it has managed to stay coronavirus-free during lockdown.

Sonia Brooks admitted some of the restrictions introduced at HMYOI Werrington have been ‘difficult’ for those in custody.

But she stressed they were doing all they could to ensure the welfare of inmates and to protect officers who work at the youth prison.

Mrs Brooks said: “When the economy came to a halt and people were told to stay at home to save lives, we had a workforce that needed to come into work.

“Very quickly, we had to put restrictions in place. Prior to Covid-19, we had children going into education. But just like schools came to a close, education in custody did as well.

“Individuals were scared about what protections we were going to put in place. They were also worried about their parents, grandparents and friends.”

Sonia Brooks, governor of HMYOI Werrington

The young offenders, who are aged between 15 and 17, can’t have visits from their relatives at the moment. But they have been given extra credit on their phones so they can speak to friends and family more regularly.

They also have 24-hour-a-day access to TVs. Inevitably, most of their time is now spent confined in their single rooms. But for two or three hours a day, they are allowed out for fresh air and to take part in activities, such as youth clubs.

Young people’s welfare is at the heart of the safety measures at Werrington.

There are now extra welfare checks, and inmates have continued to have access to one-to-one support work with officers and mental health sessions.

The enhanced hygiene procedures have included regular hand washing, quadrupling cleaning operations and keeping to the two-metre distance rule. Although officers don’t wear personal protective equipment as standard, they can use PPE if they want.

“We call it physical distancing as we want to remain socially connected because of the age group,” added the governor.

In mid-May, official figures showed 542 members of staff and 422 inmates at more than 70 prisons across England and Wales had tested positive for coronavirus. Concerns about the spread of Covid-19 led to some prisoners nationally being granted early release.

Mrs Brooks said: “We’ve had no Covid-19 cases with our young people. At the moment, we are requiring new cohorts to do 14 days away from the main population.

“We also have an area to shield young people with underlying health conditions, but we haven’t had any to date. If somebody does become symptomatic or test positive for Covid-19, they would have support away from the general population.

“We have had staff off if someone from their families has symptoms. They have isolated as required. But we’ve had no positive cases with our staff. We’ve been really fortunate.”

HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a report last month, looking at how three YOIs in other parts of the country have coped during the pandemic. It found they had ‘responded swiftly’ to keep people safe.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We introduced social distancing in line with public health advice and, inevitably, this has temporarily reduced the amount of time children can spend out of their rooms.

“However, as inspectors acknowledge, staff have been creative in providing children with meaningful contact with others through increased in-room activities and children having additional phone credits so they can call family more regularly.”





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