The endless lockdown of UK prisoners

During the COVID-pandemic, prisoners in the UK have been kept in their cell approximately 23 hours a day for almost two years – although the UN denotes solitary confinement as torture. What is it like to be locked-down in prison? A TNV report by Clotilde Nogues. 

HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow – PA Images/Alamy Stock Photos

”A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones,” wrote Nelson Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom. Prisoners are arguably the lowest citizens in the UK. They can’t vote, choose what food they eat, where they sleep or when they can shower. And when the pandemic hit in March 2020, they even lost the right to leave their cells, engage in meaningful activity, and receive visits from their loved ones. UK prisoners have been kept under severe restrictions for almost two years: 22 and a half hours a day in their cell for the luckiest, and 23 and a half hours for the rest. However, the UN defines solitary confinement as torture when it exceeds two weeks.

 According to the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), on 24 March 2020, Public Health England (PHE) told government ministers that as many as 2,500 to 3,500 prisoners might die as a result of Covid-19 in prisons, and advised them to “move quickly to a significant population reduction enabling single cell accommodation across the prison estate in England.” This would have required a reduction in the prison population of around 12,000. The PRT reported that by mid-August 2020 – four months later – only 275 prisoners had been released. By late August, the scheme had been suspended.

While the government rejected PHE’s advice about social distancing, they did take other radical measures. They chose to restrict all prisoners rather than release the non-dangerous ones in order to limit the spread of the virus. All prisoners were then kept in their cell for most of the day; all activities stopped – workshops, education, training, rehabilitation programmes, all came to a sudden halt. Religious services stopped, health care services were suspended or severely limited, and libraries and gyms were shut. They couldn’t see their families anymore, and some who were parents did not see their children for more than a year. 

Nick, 29 from West London, was released from HMP Erlestoke Prison in January 2021 after spending two years and a half in prison, including 10 months under lockdown restrictions. Before the pandemic, he was working in the prison filling fragrance bottles. “It was ok, it got me out of the cell. Time goes quite quickly, you do what you have to do and before you know it, the day is gone. I couldn’t complain,” he said. But life in a locked-down prison quickly became very hard to bear. “The vibe completely changed. Within just a few days, they stopped workshops and visits, and they stopped all moving around within the prison.”

Isolating people in closed cells for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact is a practice also called segregation or solitary confinement. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also called the Mandela Rules, state that both indefinite solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement (over 15 days) should be prohibited, and the UN regards prolonged solitary confinement as “cruel, inhuman or degrading.”

Under UK laws, video links and phone calls may be considered as meaningful contact if in-person visits are not possible. The pandemic has then accelerated the introduction of secure family video calling and in-cell telephony. As those services are now part of the new normal, such facilities alone won’t mitigate for being locked up for long periods without other meaningful in-person contact.

Jack Denny, 24, used to be a prison officer and a special police sergeant in Leicestershire, but in October 2019, he was prosecuted for fraud and theft and spent a year in prison, much of it under lockdown. He says he was wrongly convicted and has become involved with the PRT. He recalls having been very restricted in the closed prison HMP Lincoln: “We were behind our cell doors for 23 and a half hours a day, and sometimes longer. We were only allowed out for a shower, and you could exercise for half an hour but you’d just be walking around the yard,” he said. “You basically walk round and round like a hamster going around the wheel, it’s quite degrading and depressing – being locked up for that amount of time and being only offered that.”  

Those conditions of living don’t fit the standards set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), which make specific mention of outdoor exercise and consider it a basic safeguard of a prisoner’s well-being. According to the committee, all prisoners, without exception, should be allowed at least one hour of exercise in the open air every day and preferably as part of a broader programme of out-of-cell activities.

Not only were prisoners deprived of exercise, but they now had to have their meals in their cell, which means they’d eat a metre away from their toilet: “You’re eating your food in a place that is the size of a bathroom – and which is a bathroom actually, because there’s a toilet in the middle of the cell, so you’re almost eating on the toilet,” Denny claimed. “The cell stinks, there’s lots of cockroaches. They were very inhumane and degrading conditions.” He also witnessed a lack of kit changing –  people might be wearing one tee-shirt and one pair of joggers for the whole week, he claimed, and would have three or four pairs of boxers if they were lucky.

During Denny’s time in prison, he claims his cellmate developed a high temperature; he lost his sense of taste and smell and was asking the guards for help. He was seen by someone in the health care team, but they sent him back to the wing before eventually deciding to isolate him. Denny, as his cellmate, was told he had to be isolated as well. They were both sent to a separate wing which had been reserved for people who have symptoms. Denny had no symptoms at the time.

“There were loads of empty cells, but they decided to put us both in the same one, which is weird because if he did have Covid, I should have been put in a safe place,” he said. “The cell was essentially a dungeon, you couldn’t see any kind of daylight through the window, it was tiny, you could hardly move.” 

Despite the fact this was the middle of a pandemic, Denny says that he and his cellmate were not given access to basic sanitation. There was no privacy curtain around the toilet, which was hardly working properly, and they were allowed out only once in a two-week period for about seven minutes, to get a quick shower. Locked up 24 hours a day with a sick cellmate, Denny lost weight: “The conditions were so bad I cannot describe.”

The Ministry of Justice Press Office has been given a right to reply to these claims. However, they decided not to give any comments on the situation. 

In relation to Covid-19, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has noted that “while it is legitimate and reasonable to suspend non-essential activities, the fundamental rights of detained persons during the pandemic must be fully respected. This includes, in particular, the right to maintain adequate personal hygiene (including access to hot water and soap) and the right of daily access to the open air (of at least one hour).”

Official data has shown that between March 2020 and February 2021 only 121 people in prisons in England and Wales have died of Covid-19. The severity of the restrictions probably explain this low number, but at what price?

In 2006, a study showed the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement. The specific psychiatric syndromes associated with this practice include hyperresponsivity to external stimuli, perceptual distortions, illusions and hallucinations, panic attacks, and other difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.

The CAPPTIVE reports have shown many prisoners felt their mental health going down while at the same time feeling their anger and frustration going up. One of the prisoners interviewed by PRT said the lockdown proved he wasn’t as healthy as he thought he could be: “I thought I was doing okay until I caught myself eating a huge amount of snacks from the canteen and punching the walls, as well as getting inexplicably tearful. I sit in my cell trying to focus on reading and writing. When I hear loud music from another cell it drives me to tears with frustration.”

In reaction to the difficulties of the living conditions, Nick started to exercise in his cell a lot more to stay sane and keep his mind busy. He’d put his mattress in his chair and lift it up, or fill up 15 bottles of water, putting it in pillowcases to use as weight. “There’s nothing else to do inside,” he said. “Otherwise, I was sleeping a lot more, or reading wise words to keep me going.” Exercising that much to keep his mental health up is something that inspired him – since Nick went out of prison, he became a personal trainer and uses sport as a means of mental health coaching.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a report on 11 February 2021 exploring the effects of the restrictions introduced in prisons. It states that “the most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being.” Prisoners experience increased pressure, frustration, chronic boredom and exhaustion by spending hours locked in their cells. “[Prisoners] described being drained, depleted, lacking in purpose and sometimes resigned to their situation. Some said they were using unhealthy coping strategies, including self-harm and drugs… They frequently compared themselves to caged animals.”

Denny is not surprised by the comparison: “It’s even in the language prison officers are using when they’re referring to us. When talking about the food, they call it ‘the feed’ and not ‘the meal’,” he says. “In prisons, we are like animals being pushed from pen to pen. They are directing which way to go, along that line, back up to your cell, the door slammed behind us, and that’s what it’s like.”

The prisoners’ frustration increased even more when they realised they were not treated the same as the rest of the population. As restrictions on the outside were eased or tightened in response to current situations, variants and the spread of the virus, the regime behind bars had not changed until late 2021. “Are we second-class citizens again?”, asked Denny. “Why were prisoners still under lockdown conditions but people in the community were not?”

He said they were not given information on if or when things might ease. “We felt lied to,” he said. “You’d hear a prison staff laughing and talking about going out after work for meals or pints, which doesn’t help the impact on, or encourage compliance in prisoners.”

By the summer of 2020, the tension was particularly high, Nick said. “It was like a pressure cooker, ready to pop, because it’s only so much that people could take. People were angry about seeing restrictions eased outside and us being still in the same lockdown regime. People were angry at the staff as well for not being professional. One day, people protested on top of the roof, protesting about time out of their cell and they just wanted to see their family you know.”

As things started to move a bit in late 2021, with more time out of the cell and some more visits allowed, the regime is now back into full lockdown due to the Omicron variant: most of the prisoners in the UK are still being kept in their cell most of the day. HMPPS have statutory exemption in England, so they do not have to mirror restrictions being lifted in the community.

Seeing how prisoners are neglected since the start of the pandemic, one thing is becoming obvious: rehabilitation is not an essential activity of the prison. Offending behaviour programs have been cancelled for more than a year, preventing prisoners from progressing their sentences. How can we ask people to be good citizens when they come out of prison if they’d been isolated and neglected for over a year, without the tools to rehabilitate, to educate, to learn and to grow?

Clotilde Nogues is a journalist and photographer based in East London. She’s passionate about social politics and contemporary creativity. 

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