Prison conditions 'insanitary, unhygienic and degrading'

By Agencies
October 11, 2017

Many prisoners are locked up in cells for long periods in insanitary, unhygienic and degrading conditions that threaten their health and can drive them to take drugs, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke.

While high security, women’s and open prisons generally have decent conditions, the picture in many local and training prisons – home to the bulk of prisoners in England and Wales – is bleak, Mr Clarke said.

Publishing a report, 'Life in Prison: Living Conditions', containing many disturbing images, Mr Clarke said,  “All too often, prisoners are held in conditions that fall short of what most members of the public would consider as reasonable or decent.”

Evidence in the report raised the question, Mr Clarke said, of “whether it is acceptable for prisoners to be held in these conditions in the United Kingdom in 2017.”

Overcrowded cells, with two or more prisoners, often have an unscreened or inadequately screened lavatory, frequently without a lid, or sometimes with a makeshift lid made of cardboard, pillowcases or food trays. Ventilation is frequently poor. The paper captures accounts from prisoners, in cells holding two or more people, “of what it feels like to eat and sleep in what is, in effect, a shared lavatory.”

In local prisons, 31 per cent of prisoners reported being locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) figures for 2016/17 showed a quarter of prisoners overall lived in overcrowded conditions. The figure rose to 48 per cent of prisoners in local jails.

The report, based on evidence from HMIP inspection visits, notes that:

  • Prisoners are frequently required to eat all their meals in these cells – “in what are obviously insanitary, unhygienic and degrading conditions. They face health risks inherent in flushing open lavatories in confined spaces which have to serve as a bedroom and dining room (and sometimes as a kitchen).” One prisoner said, “‘I feel no one should be forced to eat their food a couple of feet away from their toilet. Some sit on their toilet as a seat to eat. This is degrading and totally unhygienic.”
  • Prisoners can only get cleaning materials on a weekly basis in only around half of jails. One prisoner told inspectors: “The only way of cleaning our cell floors is by using used T-shirts and pouring water on our floors, and mopping the water up with T-shirts as we do not get to mop our floors.”
  • While most prisoners can shower every day, this falls to only 51 per cent in prisons holding young adults, aged from 18–21.

Mr Clarke said, “The aspirations of the prison reform programme will not be met if prisoners are confined in conditions that embitter and demoralise, leaving them unable to access rehabilitative activities and, all too often, turning to illicit drugs to break the boredom born of long periods locked in their cells.”

Responding to the report, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said, “This report describes a stain on our national reputation and reveals the dreadful truth about conditions in much of our overcrowded prison system. This is a system that “demoralises and embitters” the people for whom it purports to care, encourages drug taking in prison and undermines rehabilitation on release. Incredibly, enforced inactivity is worst for the young adults with most energy to burn.  As the Chief Inspector makes clear, reform cannot be delivered against this backdrop. A significant reduction in our unnecessary and unmerciful resort to this most severe of punishments is an essential first step to a prison system of which we can feel proud rather than ashamed.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, “The photographs in this report are disgusting. The Chief Inspector should be applauded for revealing the scale of the challenge in prisons. Caging people in squalor with nothing to do all day is never going to help them become law-abiding citizens on release.

“When cells are so filthy and overcrowded, and when support for prisoners and staff is in such short supply, it should surprise no one that drug abuse is rife and that violence, self-injury and the number of people dying in prison have all risen to record highs.

“We cannot go on cramming more and more people into overcrowded jails without any thought for the consequences – and we cannot build our way out of this crisis. Building more jails only causes the problems to grow; it does not solve them.

“This is a national emergency, and ministers need to get a grip. Bold action is needed to reduce the prison population and prevent more people being swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair.

“I have written to the Secretary of State, setting out some ideas for immediate action to relieve the system, and am meeting him soon, when I will urge him to act and to act decisively.”

The report can be read here

* HM Inspector of Prisons


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