23-hour Wandsworth prison lockdown damages mental health, say families

Ellen Halliday
June 30 2020, 13.00

Extreme lockdown conditions inside Wandsworth prison are damaging the mental health of prisoners, their families have claimed.

Inmates in Wandsworth have been stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day since the coronavirus lockdown began, and are only allowed twenty minutes outside for either exercise or a shower.

A 23-year-old Tottenham woman said her boyfriend was held in the Category B prison for five months despite him being a Category C, lower-risk prisoner.

The Tottenham woman said: “The biggest hit was not being able to visit. 

“We were all worried about his mental state because he is very fragile.

“At first he was quite cheery, but being in a shoebox with another person for 24 hours took a toll.” 

The man, who was convicted of theft, has now been moved to an open prison in Sussex where he shares a billet with 15 men but can move around and exercise three times a day. 

His girlfriend said: “He hadn’t seen the light of the sun in months.”

Victorian Wandsworth men’s prison has around 1,600 people living in five wings.

It is one of the largest prisons in the country and is frequently overcrowded

Wandsworth inmates are amongst those at 55 prisons who the Ministry of Justice said have been given phones to call pre-approved contacts, however secure video calls have only been made available at 10 institutions to date.

A prison inspectors’ report published on April 28 criticised lockdown conditions at HMP Wandsworth with fears extreme lockdown conditions are damaging the mental health of prisoners and their families.

It is an issue affecting prisons across the country.

Frances Crook, 67, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Tens of thousands of people are being held in overcrowded conditions or extreme isolation. 

“It is neither humane nor sustainable, and it is taking its toll.

“We need to see a clear plan out of mass solitary confinement, to save lives and give purpose.”

University of Suffolk criminology lecturer and former prison officer Laura Polley, 24, has distributed ‘distraction packs’ of puzzles and step-by-step origami killer whales to keep prisoners busy at 28 prisons, including HMP Brixton and HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

She said: “When prisons are in crisis-management mode, with no visits, education or purposeful activities, prisoners rely on uniformed staff.

“Having hope is really important to keep everyone safe and well.”

HM Prison Service is yet to publish an exit strategy from tight lockdown regulations. 

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