Covid: Prisoners like 'caged animals' in lockdown jails

By Gaetan Portal
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Prisoners in England's jails have been locked in their cells for more than 90% of the day to keep them safe from Covid-19, the prisons watchdog says.

And the extra restrictions, which began in March, have led to a decline in their mental and physical health and a rise in drug taking and self-harm.

"It's being imprisoned while you're in prison," one inmate told inspectors.

Predictions up to 2,000 inmates would die in the pandemic in England and Wales without action have been avoided.

But inspectors who visited a cross-section of jails, interviewing male and female prisoners as well as young offenders, found the long-term consequences of such an extended and restrictive regime could be "profound", with some newly released offenders ill-prepared for life outside.

Normally, adult prisoners should spend between eight and 10 hours a day outside their cells.

But pandemic restrictions have meant the suspension of:

  • family visits
  • education classes
  • intervention work

Gyms have been closed.

And prisoners must cram daily tasks, such as showers and exercise, into the short period they are allowed out of their cells.

Prisoners told inspectors they felt like "caged animals" and passed their time rearranging their possessions or varying when they sat on their bed or a chair.

The lack of interventions for prisoners approaching their release date has already had an impact, according to social-justice charity Nacro.

'Struggling massively'

Miriam Khan, a reducing-reoffending officer in a men's category-B prison in South Yorkshire, told BBC News she was already seeing the most vulnerable men reoffending and returning to jail.

"When I have asked them, 'What are you doing back?' it's because they are struggling massively with their mental health and not being able to access support.

"Because everything is over the phone, they don't have the skill set to do it.

"Even their probation appointments have to be pre-booked, so they don't see them as much anymore".

'Uncovered toilets'

Inspectors also highlighted the issue of "doubling up", where two prisoners share a cell designed for one.

In lockdown, prisoners have to eat their meals in cells that sometimes have unscreened or uncovered toilets.

"You can hate someone for no reason, can't you? Being in the cell with them every day," said one prisoner, who shared.

Chief inspector of prisons Charlie 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."

"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."

'Rock bottom'

Separately, the governor of an adult men's jail, speaking anonymously, said prisons were "at a point of absolute crisis".

"The pressure has been relentless for months and months," the governor said.

"I simply do not know how staff and prisoners are coping.

"Morale is at rock bottom.

"And with increasing numbers of positive cases amongst prisoners and staff, and large numbers of staff having to self-isolate, it is increasingly difficult to ensure that even the basics get done.

"It is vital that prison staff are treated as a priority occupation for vaccination, as the current situation simply cannot continue."

One officer, also speaking anonymously, said there were currently 150 staff off sick or self-isolating at the high-security prison where he worked.

'Mental strength'

Prisoners told the inspectors they had understood the need for the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic.

But the continued restrictions had led to "despondency, resentment and lack of hope".

"At the beginning, you could put up with it because you had the mental strength," one said.

"You wonder how much more you can actually tolerate."

Prisons and Probation Minister Lucy Frazer QC said: "As this report recognises, the action we've taken and the hard work and dedication of front-line staff has significantly limited the spread of the virus, saved lives and protected the NHS.

"We know these necessary measures have come at a cost, so we continue to support prisoners with their well-being and rehabilitation through vital family contact, education, work and exercise.

"I will consider the report's findings carefully as we continue to work hard to protect the lives of staff and prisoners and cut crime."