Too many prisoners were spending much of their lives ‘locked in shared, overcrowded, insanitary cells’, according to the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales. In his fifth and final report, Peter Clarke noted that almost one in five adult male prisoners (19%) told inspectors that they were out of their cells for less than two hours on weekdays, including 32% in men’s local prisons.
‘Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year? Prisoners often tell us they are harming themselves to gain some attention, for instance if their applications or complaints are being ignored,’ Clarke wrote.
Heavy restrictions, such as prisoners’ time out of cells being limited to 30 minutes a day, were placed on prisons in March in response to the pandemic. The report makes the case for alternative solutions to be found to protect prisoners from Covid without restricting them so severely. Clarke reported that ‘the number of prisoners reporting that their mental health deteriorating over the past few months is increasing’.
He called for greater transparency on the part of the Prison Service when providing information on the state of these restrictions in their prisons and said it ‘would be helpful if… their default position wasn’t one of defensiveness but much more open engagement of the problems and issues’. For example, he highlighted the reintroduction of social visits to most prisons but noted that in many cases these were of lower quality and rarely used. When Erlestoke Prison was inspected, only two of its 28 visit slots of the day had been filled.
Clarke also identified the prison system’s deep-rooted ‘systemic weaknesses’ and that long-standing issues such as illicit drugs, poor conditions and lack of safety ‘will not have gone away because of the health emergency’. ‘When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that adversely affect the safety and decency of our prisons, the opportunity they offer for rehabilitation and their contribution to reducing reoffending,’ he said.
Clarke reported progress at HMP Liverpool which had been ‘the subject of one of the most damning inspection reports in recent years’. ‘When I returned to Liverpool in September 2019, the prison was almost unrecognisable. The filth and vermin had gone, and prisoners were no longer being held in degrading, squalid conditions,’ he said.