PURPOSEFUL ACTIVITY in prisons in England and Wales – that is access to education, employment, exercise or time out of cell to take part in meaningful activity – has never been as bad as it is now, with prisons continuing to fail to return to the pre-pandemic regimes which supported the rehabilitation and well-being of prisoners.

The findings of a new report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons looking at weekends in prison confirms that the high levels of lock-up reported during the week continue in the weekend and, in most cases, were much worse.

Inspectors visiting 11 prisons on Saturdays or Sundays found that most prisoners were spending at least 21 hours a day locked in their cells at the weekend. In one jail, prisoners were not unlocked at all for one of the two days except to collect their meals. Of more than 6,000 prisoners surveyed in 2022–23, 60 per cent of men said that they spent less than two hours out of their cell on a typical Saturday or Sunday. This was more than double the proportion in the year before the pandemic (28 per cent). The effect on women in prison was even starker; they were now four times more likely to say that they received less than two hours out of their cells at weekends (source: HM Inspector of Prisons prisoner survey data).

Libraries were closed at weekends, and many prisoners had little to no time at all in the fresh air and could not even have a shower. Even when prisoners were unlocked for a period of association, recreational equipment was broken and out of use, and there were too few activities to engage prisoners constructively.

Combined with the severely limited time out of cell on weekdays, prisoners told us that their mental health and well-being was affected. For prisoners who were struggling, there were few opportunities to get the attention of a member of staff without pressing their emergency cell call bell.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said: “We have been saying for some time how worried we are about prison regimes, and prisoners have told us that it is even worse at weekends. So we went to see for ourselves. What we found was prisoners locked up for almost the entire weekend with nothing to do. They can’t get a book from the library, they can’t have a shower, and, if someone is suffering, they do so alone and in silence. This would be bad enough, but seen alongside the wider week with the poorest access to education and employment we’ve ever seen, and rising levels of self-harm across the estate, it’s catastrophic.”

Purposeful activity in prisons is the worst it has ever been. Of prisons inspected in 2022–23, 91 per cent were found to be poor or insufficiently good for purposeful activity. This compared with a previous low of 46 per cent in 2016–17. Purposeful activity should support the rehabilitation of prisoners, as well as their mental and physical well-being in detention. This is particularly important as prisoners are more likely than the general population to have mental health problems. Many prisoners are also ill-equipped to gain employment on release, with 50 per cent of prisoners being functionally illiterate.

Charlie Taylor said: “Most prisoners are released back into the community at some point. If we aren’t rehabilitating them, and are even damaging them further through never-ending lock-up, what is going to happen when they are released? As pressure from prison populations rises, the situation can only worsen unless the prison service acts now.”

* Read the report: A thematic review of weekends in prison here.

*: Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons