CovidComms Awards

How HMPPS kept prisoners and their families informed

HM Prison and Probation Service
Winner: Best in-house team - public sector
CovidComms Awards 2020

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) is a complex beast, composed of more than 52,000 staff, often working on a 24/7 shift pattern; 106 prisons (or 115 including private sector prisons); 500 probation sites; and 250,000 service users, including around 80,000 prisoners plus people on probation. It is the fourth biggest government department, even though it is an agency, but the communications team’s remit stretches even further.

‘We’ve got all the [service users’] families, which has become really important during this period because we’re the people who let them know if they can visit their loved ones,’ explains head of communications Samantha Lancet-Grant, who was appointed just six months before the crisis broke.

‘And we have a very vocal stakeholder audience, which is also important. Many of them are operational stakeholders as well; they work in prisons, whether that be catering or education, family services or the chaplaincy. When you start to shut buildings down, we absolutely need to let them know if they can and cannot enter the next day and the precautions they need to take and how they can keep themselves and their families safe.’

(An advisory forum, comprising the service’s ten most influential stakeholders, was created; it meets fortnightly to consult on key issues.)

There are other unique challenges. Staff rarely access computers while at work and mobile phones are banned within prisons. Literacy levels vary across the prisoner population but are, in many cases, limited. And finally, during a national lockdown – a term that has different connotations within a prison – communication is even more vital to help staff, prisoners and their families informed, understand what is happening, how it affects them, and the actions needed to keep safe.

There is some very tricky messaging because, in some circumstances, in these workplaces you cannot socially distance but there are other places where we expect people to do so. We’ve been looking at the advice from the World Health Organisation on what are the things that make people listen and make changes when there are those limitations.

The key principles of communications, according to Lancet-Grant, are openness and transparency and even more so during the Covid-19 crisis. ‘People deserve and need to know the information. But we also want our stakeholders’ input. They have had to run what they do in exceptional circumstances under exceptional delivery models,’ she says. ‘Taking account of wider views has been really important.’

From early February 2020, three comms professionals started to work on Covid-19 preparedness, but this evolved into a core team of ten who subsequently drove all aspects of communications on a 24 hours a day, seven days a week basis. At various times, though, everyone in the 30-person team has been involved.

‘For every different aspect of Covid-19 that we need to talk about, we have to run a campaign. For example, it might be about vitamin D. Prisoners will be getting vitamin D supplements because they are not able to receive it in the usual way [through exposure to the sun]. We need to make sure that our staff know that’s available, how they get it and encourage the behavioural change to make [prisoners] want to take it,’ explains Lancet-Grant.

‘We’re also doing a campaign about social distancing in prisons for staff. There is some very tricky messaging because, in some circumstances, in these workplaces you cannot socially distance but there are other places where we expect people to do so. We’ve been looking at the advice from the World Health Organisation on what are the things that make people listen and make changes when there are those limitations. We also work with our audiences to gather their insights, so whether it is our prison governors telling us what has and hasn’t worked or the key thing that will motivate their staff to make the changes we need. We build on all these insights in our campaigns.’

Behavioural economics, more commonly known as nudge theory, plays a big role in HMPPS’ communications. ‘It’s about looking at the drivers that make people make those changes, whether that is more on the authoritarian side or the more empathetic side, where people see those that they respect doing it. We had a hard-hitting campaign involving staff members who have had Covid-19 talking to their peers about how it affected them and the changes they could make to help avoid that. It’s about talking in languages that people understand and that resonate with them, and then relating it back to things that matter to them most, such as protecting their families,’ explains Lancet-Grant.

It’s about talking in languages that people understand and that resonate with them

‘A lot of our messaging is about information, particularly when this first started, which we make appropriate for our audiences. For example, Public Health England created posters about using hand sanitisers. They’re not relevant to a prison: we can’t have hand sanitisers as they contain alcohol.’

But there were other challenges that faced the communications team. With prisoners locked up for longer periods than normal, and many services and activities paused, there were fears that they would become frustrated and bored. Lancet-Gray’s team created distraction packs to entertain and engage them. Each pack comprised crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, in-cell workout sheets created by former gymnasts, information about wellbeing and other reading materials.

‘We worked with the psychology team within HMPPS to make sure that it was accessible to people. There was a range of literacy levels. We started with one generic pack, but as we moved on, we broke it down. We’ve now got one for the women’s estate, one for the men and one for the younger people,’ she explains.

‘The young people audience has been really important. We have got children in custody and their needs are so acute and often their ability with reading and taking on information is lower than other people in their age group. Working with our psychology teams and speech and language therapists, we created products that are child-friendly with simple language, icons and pictures. It was about addressing them in a different way to make sure they could take the information on board.’

But in an environment when many communication channels are restricted, it is often a matter of going back to basics to keep prisoners informed.

The communications team distributes standard black and white notices to prisoners. Again, they work with the psychology team to ensure these are written in a way that is informative but without giving the impression of an authoritative body bellowing orders. All new information or changes to processes are conveyed by these notices which are sent to governors, printed out and then slid under every cell door.

Prison radio broadcasts into 96 per cent of cells, and comms has worked closely with its team to ensure scripts keep listeners updated on relevant changes that might impact them. Phil Copple, acting director general of Prisons, now has a weekly slot on the radio, where he takes prisoners’ questions about Covid-19. Other senior leaders have also made guest appearances. For major changes, the communications team creates animations, accessible for prisoners who cannot read, that run on WayOut TV, which broadcasts into around 60 per cent of cells. There is also Inside Times, a prison newspaper, which works closely with comms.

But the biggest impact of Covid-19 on prisoners has been the temporary cessation of visits, apart from legal representatives or those permitted on compassionate grounds. To mitigate this, face-to-face visits have been replaced by video calling, which has been rolled out across 98 per cent of the prison estate. ‘We do the campaigns and communications about these mitigations,’ adds Lancet-Grant. ‘But there were also reassuring messages. We draft the leadership comms for Phil [Copple], who has written to each prisoner and has addressed notes which go to their families. These notes are shared on social media.’ The families are kept up-to-date on information relating to each of the 106 prisons under the Service’s remit, irrespective of how frequent these changes may be.

‘In all the notes we wrote to families and in the notices we sent to prisoners, we were always really grateful to the prisoners for their patience with the system,’ says Lancet-Grant. ‘The Prison Service has managed the pandemic much better than all the projections suggested by Public Health England. There have been deaths, and every one is tragic, but overall the numbers are so much less than predicted. We’ve been able to say to the prisoners that the reason we’ve been able to manage the comms so well is, in large part, because you’ve been patient with the restrictions that we’ve had to introduce.’

Social media has played a big role during the crisis. Most prisons have their own Twitter feeds, where families can find out what is happening or check to see if it is possible to visit their loved ones. Comms has supported these feeds. Additionally, HMPPS has its own Twitter feed, which has more than 19,000 followers. ‘This is important for our staff because, while they won’t use their mobile phones at work, they might check them during their lunchbreaks or at home.’

We were always really grateful to the prisoners for their patience with the system

Prison officers also receive Q&As and call scripts to help them respond to direct questions from family members, or even the prisoners themselves, which ensures messaging is consistent.

‘We own a central comms channel for our staff. If something changes within prisons, or there is a new piece of operational guidance that every prison needs to know at the same time, it comes to our team. We make sure the messaging is right and send it out via out channels. We get one or two of those a week in standard times. At the peak of Covid-19, when there was so much new information that prison guards needed just to do their jobs, it was eight to ten a day,’ explains Lancet-Grant. ‘We set up a mini team, comprising a few people from our team and a few from the operational side. We sent information in bundles at 8am and 4pm. Governors then knew when to expect it, and the information didn’t get lost in in-boxes.

‘Like the Army, the Prison Service is pretty hierarchal. The governor will stand up on a Monday morning doing a team meeting, and that’s where staff really listen. We must provide him, or her, with the right information. It really is one of our most successful channels.’

But the mini team did more than just bundle information up. It ensured that the guidance was easy to digest and understand. It set up an extranet site, separate from the existing intranet, which could also be accessed by operational partners, and spaced out the flow of information. Information is refreshed throughout the week but just one email is sent out, on a Friday, which catalogues all these updates. ‘One of our big risks was about overloading really busy operational staff with information, so being able to set up processes that made it simple for people to access that information has really helped.’

The communications team has worked together with the press office throughout the crisis. ‘Every single piece of information that we put out, whether that is internal comms or corporate comms, is going to 52,000 people. It is basically public. We’ve worked with the press office to make sure that our messages align with the wider narrative,’ she adds. ‘We work in the same directorate and have always had a really good relationship with them, but I think the crisis has really enhanced that in the sense that. In the past, there was less stuff that we needed to work on together. In the Ministry of Justice, there is an overarching Covid strategic comms plan, which we all feed into and that my plan sits under. So, we’ve all worked together throughout.’