Most prisoners had spent at least 23 hours a day locked in their cell since lockdown and, in one prison, shielding prisoners had only one and a half hours out of their cells a week for two months. A recent report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons on the impact of COVID-19 both commended and condemned what was described as the ‘very restrictive approach’ implemented throughout establishments. Whilst in one breath praise was given to prisons and immigration removal centres responding ‘swiftly and decisively’, in another Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, denounced the ‘degrading’ living conditions found in many.
Published towards the end of last month, the analysis reviews 35 so-called short scrutiny visits which took place between April and July in response to the COVID-19 lockdown. You can read the report here. The aim of the programme was for inspectors to focus on issues essential to the safety, care and basic rights of those detained at the height of the pandemic as opposed to more exhaustive full reviews normally carried out.
Peter Clarke flagged concerns over the living conditions for the detained across the prison estate. Frequent lapses in cleanliness standards were noted by inspectors. Those in cells with no toilet or sink had been left in ‘unacceptable and degrading’ conditions. Acknowledging that the system was overwhelmed, Clarke relayed that some prisoners had had to wait hours to be let out of their cells, meaning that they had resorted ‘to urinating or defecating in buckets or bags’. He further explained that the prisoners ate in those same spaces and did not have access to hand-washing facilities or hand sanitiser at that time.
Another consequence of the coronavirus-prevention regime being rolled out across prisons was that confinement to cells increased. In the last five months, most prisoners have spent ‘at least 23 hours’ a day locked in their cells. This treatment of prisoners falls within the widely accepted definition of solitary confinement: when a person is confined for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact. As detailed in the report, the UN’s Nelson Mandela Rules (standard minimums) state that prolonged (in excess of 15 days), and indefinite, solitary confinement should be prohibited.
A ‘cautious interpretation’ of the shielding guidance issued to prisons meant that in one establishment, over half the population (approximately 550 prisoners) were required to shield. They only spent one and a half hours per week outside of their cells for two consecutive months and in this short time were expected to shower, make phone calls, and access any open air space.
Inspectors noted that confinement was poor preparation for release. With release on temporary licence having been suspended for all except for ‘essential workers’ (the definition of such varying across prisons), the restrictions imposed over the past few months threatened resettlement plans for many.
Inspectors reported that both the prison population and staff became increasingly frustrated with, and stressed by, the duration and severity of restrictions. Governors had been unable to lessen the regime without permission from the HM Prison and Probation Service’s ‘Gold Command’ that in mid-July many prisons were still adhering to the most restrictive approach.
Peter Clarke recognised that ‘there is now a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently’. He warned of long-term damage to the mental health and well-being of prisoners, children in tough offender institutes and detainees in immigration removal centres.
The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, has said that the measures taken in prisons to contain COVID-19 are ‘not sustainable’. ‘As we face the prospect of a rise in infections during the autumn, prisons have been left facing the same fundamental problem as when the pandemic first took hold,’ he said. ‘There are too many prisoners for the space available.’
Dawson explained that ‘[t]he government has wilfully set its face against the safe reduction in prison numbers… [and] as numbers going through the court system increase, it will be prisoners and their families who pay the price of that failure to plan ahead.’