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Call to suspend face-to-face prison education as staff don't even have basic handwashing facilities

24 March 2020

Around two-thirds of prison education staff (63%) say hand washing facilities in their prisons are inadequate, despite government guidance which says regular hand washing is crucial to slowing the spread of coronavirus.

UCU has called for an immediate suspension of all face-to-face prison education to help reduce further spread of the coronavirus. The union has written to Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) calling for prison education to be stopped and offering to help look at ways to provide alternative learning materials for prisoners.

A survey by the union released on Tuesday found that more than one-in-ten (12%) prison educators don't have access to soap, 8% can't access hot water and over two-thirds (69%) can't wash their hands during lesson time.

The survey also revealed that:

  • almost all (93%) prison educators are expected to share pens, keyboards and other equipment with staff and prisoners
  • around two-thirds (64%) said classrooms aren't being cleaned between lessons
  • one in five (19%) hadn't been told about instances where other prison staff were self-isolating as a precaution
  • almost a third (31%) haven't been given clear instructions from their employer about when to self-isolate
  • one in five (19%) have been asked to undertake non-educational activities in recent weeks such as cleaning, catering and handing out medication to prisoners.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: 'The government must take immediate action to shut down face-to-face prison education, as it has done in schools and further education colleges. Education has a vital role to play in prisons, but we must ensure the safety of staff and prisoners first and foremost, and do everything possible to limit the spread of the coronavirus. We want to work with the prison service to look at ways to get alternative learning materials to prisoners, but the face-to-face teaching must end for now.' 

'It is unacceptable that prison education staff are being asked to share equipment, work in dirty classrooms and undertake extra duties. The lack of information provided to staff about when they should self-isolate is a major cause for concern.'

The union said the survey showed how the coronavirus outbreak was putting extra pressure on a prison system that already struggles to protect the health and safety of staff. A recent survey of prison staff by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (JUPA) revealed that almost two-thirds (64%) reported feeling unsafe at work in the last 12 months.

The survey was conducted online and drew responses from 447 UCU members working in prison education across 86 prisons in England and Wales.

Last updated: 27 March 2020