Lockdown conditions may have made prisons safer but what at what cost to prisoners’ mental health?

By Mary Nagle
August 25 2020, 21.25

Prisoners and members of staff are calling for the relaxation of COVID restrictions in prisons in the latest report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

For many prisoners, restrictions mean being confined to a cell for 23 hours a day.

A report by the Chief Inspector published in April found: “The vast majority [of prisoners] were locked up for nearly the whole day with usually no more than half an hour out of their cells.”

The measures were initially undertaken to keep prisoners and staff safe from the virus in the highly contagious prison environment.

Mark Fairhurst, chair of the Prison Officers Association (POA), said that according to Public Health England models, business as usual could have resulted in 2,700 prisoner deaths but that as of Friday 21 August, there had been 26. The service has lost nine prison staff.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons’ report notes: “Our visits identified increasing levels of stress and frustration among many prisoners and evidence that prisoner well-being was being increasingly affected by the continuation of restrictions.”

The report also questions whether the continuation of lockdown regime is necessary in all prisons.

It quotes a member of prison staff saying: “COVID-19 has had a far weaker presence than predicted. The restricted regime was designed to respond to the prediction.

“Isolation is widely recognised as damaging to mental health. The current restricted regime is unnecessary and damaging to those in our care.”

The report also discussed the toll that lockdown regime is having on prisoners’ mental health. It states: “There is now a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently.”

The report warned that restrictions have at times amounted to solitary confinement.

Kelly Flynn, the partner of a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth said her partner’s mental health has deteriorated since he was committed six months ago: “He sounds half-drunk, like he’s all spaced out. There’s nothing to do.”

Her partner is kept in a shared cell. The Prison Reform Trust stated: “Sharing a cell designed for one with another person for 23 hours a day, where you must eat your meals as well as go to the toilet, is not the mark of a humane and decent response.”

While prisoners and many staff call for restrictions in prisons to be relaxed, the Prison Officers Association supports extending elements of the lockdown regime post-pandemic, especially with regard to how many prisoners are unlocked at one time.

Mr Fairhurst said that prior to lockdown, three or four staff were expected to guard an entire wing of 100 unlocked prisoners, putting staff and prisoners at risk and making it difficult to quell incidents.

He proposed that inmates should be unlocked in smaller groups of 25/30 with three or four staff supervising, as during lockdown. He said this would encourage improved prisoner-staff relations.

The POA’s approach also attempts to solve a problem which predates the pandemic.

Lockdown came at a time when assaults on prison staff and among prisoners were at an all-time high. Stress was the primary cause of sick leave and the service had trouble retaining staff.

One of the last early-day motions tabled before Westminster locked down in March was about the health and safety of prison staff.

A quote from a public sector prison officer read at the debate stated: “I have been in the service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work – but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.” 

Lockdown measures have changed this picture. Mr Fairhurst said: “The POA’s initial analysis has highlighted that assaults on staff and assaults prisoner-on-prisoner have reduced by over 50%.”

“We’re getting reports from every branch in the country that prisoners feel a lot safer.”

A reduction in violence is perhaps inevitable when prisoners are forced to spend 23 hours locked in a room alone or with one other prisoner. However recent HM Chief Prison Inspectors’ reports have not mentioned such a trend. MOJ statistics for the last quarter will not be available until October.

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