Overcoming the challenges of working in prison – and a pandemic

Experience of working across a host of different healthcare organisations is what makes The Health Informatics Service (THIS) one of the most unique organisations in the NHS – and one of its more unusual projects saw its IT experts working within the confines of prison security amid the pandemic.

THIS has forged a strong partnership with Spectrum Community Health CIC since its inception 11 years ago, supporting its IT infrastructure as it continues to expand and develop.

Spectrum Community Health CIC is a social enterprise delivering a range of community and offender healthcare services on behalf of the NHS, local authority public health services and other partners predominantly in the North of England.

It provides health support services to 18 prisons, four sexual health services and a wealth of community health services.

The security dimension was an added challenge when THIS collaborated with Spectrum to successfully complete two large scale projects:

  • Supporting the transition of IT services at seven prisons in the North East after Spectrum won the management contract to run them.
  • Migrating Spectrum’s server-based infrastructure to a cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 solution providing improved functionality, security and integration for approximately 1,200 staff.

Jim Longley, THIS’ Service Account Manager, says: “Accomplishing this in a prison is more challenging than most locations. Gaining entry in the first place could be time-consuming because of the security checks, and once inside there were times when our team had to be escorted by prison officers – especially when we were moving among the prison population – as we scoped locations and infrastructure.”

Taking agility to a whole new level

The go-live for the project fell just as the first COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, adding another – and at that time – unprecedented challenge.

Jim Longley: “Plan A became plan B, and then plan C. We had to be flexible – the aim was to keep everyone on seven sites working as normal without any downtime, which we achieved by remotely taking over management of the network equipment and devices.

“We also deployed tools to enable us to successfully manage and support these servers moving forward until we could physically attend the sites.

“We remotely connected to each site’s independent active directory environment, carrying out the required changes to allow us to manage and support each site independently – from being able to create and remove user accounts, setting up printers and implementing group policies to manage new desktop environments on all computers.

“Our ability to remotely take control of the computer environment enabled Spectrum to concentrate on managing the continuity of patient care within the prisons.”

Once a new IT architecture and environment had been agreed, and with access to the sites finally allowed the transition to a full-blown, THIS-supported infrastructure began and included the transition to Microsoft Office 365 where users could access their new accounts and the new suite of applications that came with it.

Other risks and challenges that had to be considered included:

  • Arranging for new equipment to be delivered and be available when required while taking account of prison security.
  • The ability to re-image devices and the associated equipment to allow it to pass through security.
  • Planning for the possibility of a prison having to go into lockdown for a security issue, with contingency plans to allow for this.
  • Agreeing downtime with the healthcare teams while the network configuration was changed.

Maximising the benefits of Microsoft Office 365

In an ever-changing world of remote and/or agile working, the need to communicate and collaborate simply and seamlessly has never been so important, which is why THIS utilises the full Microsoft Office 365 suite of apps in its healthcare hub to maximise the ability of teams to work together, share knowledge, insight and feedback.

The Spectrum transition meant migrating users from Microsoft Office 2010 – within which users were restricted to Outlook, Word and Excel etc – to the Microsoft Office 365 healthcare hub and its vastly improved functionality.

Spectrum also wanted the benefits of upgrading from the server-based Office 2010 – which was no longer being supported by Microsoft – to the cloud-based Office 365 to take advantage of the cloud’s greater flexibility and easier access, thus removing the need to provide service support and security for the Office 2010 server on its premises.

What did we achieve?

  • THIS’ experience acquired through previous Office 2010 to Office 365 migrations enabled it to tailor the project to Spectrum’s specifications, meeting their needs in the process. The long-running partnership with Spectrum meant THIS had extensive knowledge of the organisation and how it worked.
  • THIS worked through configurations and process mapping with Spectrum to support the organisation from a security perspective.
  • The transfer of all email accounts and systems in such a way Spectrum’s users didn’t experience any outages or downtime. This was done in a transitional, pre-planned way with as little impact on end-users as possible.


THIS has a three-year rolling contract with Spectrum that will continue for at least another two years thanks to the strong and evolving partnership forged between them.

The partnership benefits both parties in that THIS understands Spectrum’s specific requirements and is able to provide advice and assurance that any challenge will be overcome. Spectrum benefits from being able to rely on THIS to support its ever-changing, supported environment, knowing its subject matter experts will be able to react quickly to new developments and changes as and when they are required.

Sharon Hardcastle, Spectrum’s Director of Finance, says: “Our relationship with THIS has always been a very positive one. Our growth has been significant over our 11-year history and the ‘can-do’ and proactive attitude adopted by THIS has contributed significantly to our successful delivery of services. We work in some of the most challenging environments with complex security considerations and the flexibility to support and develop workable solutions has always been provided by the experienced THIS teams.”

Interested in working with us?

Discover more about THIS’s ground-breaking work and its services here.

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