The Key Worker Scheme

The key worker system is an important part of HMPPS’s response to self-inflicted deaths, self-harm, and violence in prisons. It is intended to improve safety by engaging with people, building better relationships between staff and prisoners, and helping people settle into life in prison. All prisoners in the male closed estate must be allocated a key worker whose responsibility is to engage, motivate, and support them through their time in prison. Governors in the male closed estate must ensure that time is made available for key workers to spend an average of 45 minutes per prisoner per week for delivery of the key worker role, which includes individual time with each prisoner.

Since  the roll out of the key worker scheme in 2018-19, the PPO has seen examples where it is working well and is making a real contribution to prisoners’ safety.   However, it is in the nature of the PPO’s work, that we have also seen cases where the scheme is not being delivered in the way intended. The following two cases are examples of this.

Case study 1

Mr A was 19 years old, he had a history of self-harm, depression, and substance misuse. During his time in prison, Mr A was involved in disruptive behaviour, violence towards another prisoner, and substance misuse. These issues were dealt with through adjudications, reducing Mr A to the basic regime, referral to a substance misuse recovery worker, and periods in the segregation unit. On the last occasion, after Mr A was found in possession of an illicit substance, he was punished with five days cellular confinement. A few hours after his segregation began, staff found Mr A hanging in his cell. He was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

Mr A met his key worker weekly for the first 12 weeks he was in prison. However, after this Mr A’s key worker had not been allocated any time to conduct his key worker duties. He did not meet Mr A for seven weeks before he died. Previous key worker sessions had involved meaningful exchanges about Mr A’s behaviour, family, anxiety, and drug use, with the key worker and Mr A building a good rapport. The key worker’s failure to see Mr A in his last few weeks was therefore a missed opportunity to discuss changes and to engage with Mr A to discuss how he felt about his drug use, his behaviour, the further charges he faced and a potential long sentence. The PPO recommended that the Governor should ensure that key workers are allocated sufficient time per prisoner, for an average of 45 minutes per week, to include individual time with each prisoner.

Case Study 2

Mr B was 40 years old. During his time in prison, his father died from a terminal illness, Mr B also suffered from depression, he fell behind on his studying, and in the two weeks before he died, he was engaged in antisocial behaviour which might have been reflective of being bullied or in debt. Prison staff also found Mr B under the influence of illicit substances a number of times. The prison dealt with these issues by placing him on the basic regime, and with care plans for substance misuse, including supporting him through cognitive behavioural therapy. After a number of phone calls the week before he died, Mr B’s partner asked him to stop calling her. Two days later, Mr B was found hanging in his cell and was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

During Mr B’s time at the prison, he had just one key worker session. His key worker at the time of his death had never seen him, he did not know for how long he had been Mr B’s key worker and said that prison staff were rarely allocated keyworker duties on their rota due to staffing levels. Given Mr B was having difficulties with his partner and might have been in debt, key worker sessions may have alerted the prison to his risk factors. The PPO recommended that the Governor should ensure that there is an effective key worker scheme which provides meaningful support to prisoners, in line with national policy.

In addition to the two case studies above, the PPO has made other recommendations, including the need for:

  • key workers to meet their assigned prisoners within their first few days of arrival;
  • high quality case notes that record key worker interactions;
  • an effective key worker scheme, including meaningful communication and identifying prisoners’ needs; and
  • involving key workers in ACCT reviews.

Lucy Higgins, Head of Learning Lessons  and Gurmukh Panesar, Research Officer