What happens to prisoners in a pandemic?

Work with offenders on the reality of permanent bang-up

Many readers will be aware of the latest report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons into the impact of the pandemic on people in prison. Published last week, the report was widely publicised across the media, gathering more coverage than usual because of an innovation by the new Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor. As well as the report itself – based on 70 in-depth interviews with prisoners by prison inspectors – the Inspectorate published a series of audio clips in which prisoners’ own experiences of prison life during lockdown are voiced in their own words, albeit the comments are read by HMI Prison staff. You can hear the clips for yourselves here.

We have transcribed a couple of the clips here for you. The first is from a man who describes the intense physical effects of being locked up for long periods.

“You can’t move, my kidneys, my body are hurting. Because you either have to lie down or sit in a chair for 23 hours and there’s nothing you can do about it…”

The second clip is from a woman talking about being restricted to her cell for almost the entire day, every day:

“Your room is tiny and you’re in that room 24/7. You’ve had your dinner in there, you’ve slept in there, you’ve done everything in there. It’s just demotivating, those same four walls.”

While Mr Taylor acknowledged that the predicted thousands of deaths in prisons have been averted through immediate and decisive action by HM Prison and Probation Services at the start of the pandemic when the prison system was first locked down, he questioned whether the prison service has got the balance right between managing the COVID-19 risk and providing enough meaningful activity, engagement and time out of cell.

Mr Taylor said, “many months after the introduction of these restrictions, most adult prisoners were still locked in their cell for an average of 22.5 hours a day, seven days a week.” Inspectors said that although prisoners had supported the original lockdown, they now questioned the legitimacy and fairness of the continuing lack of time out of their cells.

Mr Taylor challenged suggestions that the restrictions, and a subsequent reduction in recorded violent incidents, have made prisons safer:

“Clearly, with so little time out of cell prisoners had less opportunity to be violent or fight, but this was not the full picture according to those we interviewed. Prisoners said that violence, intimidation and bullying had not stopped, but had instead taken other forms. The accrual of debt persisted, and some had turned to using drugs and other unhealthy coping strategies as a way of managing their isolation and boredom.”

While no prisoners wanted a return to the high levels of violence seen in some prisons before the pandemic, Mr Taylor added, they did not believe that the answer was simply to lock people away. Prisoners spoke to inspectors of “despondency, resentment and lack of hope.” Many likened their daily lives to the film Groundhog Day and some said they were “sleeping their sentences away.”

Key findings

The report sets out some grim conclusions:

  • Most prisoners had spent over 90% of their days behind their cell doors since the end of March 2020, with no end to the restrictions in sight. Cramped cells, often shared by two people, sometimes with an unscreened toilet and poor ventilation, predated the pandemic. Now, prisoners who shared had virtually no privacy.
  • Not having enough time to complete basic daily tasks when prisoners were unlocked added to the pressure and frustration.
  • Prisoners lacked sufficient day-to-day interaction and support from other prisoners, staff and family and friends. However, the introduction of free video calling, and the continuing installation of in-cell phones, were valued by prisoners.
  • The decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being was disturbing. They were chronically bored and exhausted by spending hours locked in their cells. They described being drained, depleted, lacking in purpose and sometimes resigned to their situation.
  • Some prisoners said they were using unhealthy coping strategies, including self-harm and drugs. They frequently compared themselves to caged animals.

Conclusion 

Mr Taylor summarised the report and current situation by saying that the present restrictions should not continue, arguing that it was not possible for prisons to fulfil its core functions of rehabilitation, reducing reoffending and helping prisoners to build productive and meaningful lives:

“The cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound. The lack of support to reduce reoffending and help prisoners address their risk of serious harm to the public does not fill me with hope for the longer term. Action is needed to maintain the few positives derived from the pandemic, such as video calling, and to make sure that prisons are prepared to restore activity as soon as it is safe. Locking prisoners up in prolonged isolation has never been a feature of a healthy prison.”