THE SPREAD OF COVID-19 was limited in prisons by a restricted daily regime, including prolonged isolation in cells, but there has been a “heavy cost” in deteriorating well-being and an increased risk to society that prisoners are released without effective rehabilitation, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales has warned.

The Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor has published a new report, What happens to prisoners in a pandemic?, analysing in-depth interviews by HM Inspectorate of Prisons with more than 70 men, women and children in six prisons. The report contains many prisoner comments and case studies and is accompanied by audio clips in which prisoners’ comments are voiced by HMI Prisons staff.

It says the negative impacts of severe restrictions on daily life raises the question of 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 acknowledged that predictions of thousands of deaths in prisons had been averted through immediate and decisive action by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Prisoners told inspectors they felt that the initial lockdown rules, imposed at the end of March 2020, were necessary.

However, 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.” Prisoners questioned the legitimacy and fairness of the continuing lack of time out of their cells.

“We have heard 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 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.”

The report sets out some key findings:

  • Most prisoners had spent over 90 per cent 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.

From the perspective of wider society, Taylor said that important functions of prisons are to rehabilitate, reduce reoffending and help prisoners to build productive and meaningful lives. “Opportunities for this work had dramatically reduced due to the restrictions and prisoners we spoke to said they would be released without having had help to change their attitudes, thinking and behaviour.”

Many prisoners feared being released with increased mental health problems and without having had the chance to address their offending behaviour. One prisoner told inspectors: “There’s no such thing as education in this prison.” Another said: “There’s no progression, it’s just counting the days.” Mr Taylor added: “It is likely that prisoners who are released with no support to address their offending behaviour and no access to education or work will struggle to cope, potentially leading to further offending and greater strain on public services.”

In conclusion, Taylor said: “To lead successful, crime-free lives when they leave custody, prisoners must change the way they feel about themselves and develop a belief that they can take control of their future. In our fieldwork we saw a sense of hopelessness and helplessness becoming engrained.

“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.”

* Read What happens to prisoners in a pandemic? here.

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons