Blog: After what prisoners have endured in the pandemic, plans to increase sentences are inexplicable
Writing for the i our Head of Research, Dr Kimmett Edgar outlines the extraordinary conditions that people in prison have been held in during the last 12 months, and questions why the government are intent on introducing new sentencing measures which even its own minister admits are unevidenced.
The pandemic has shown that rehabilitation and public safety don’t come from locking people up all day, every day
Faced in March 2020 with the possibility of many thousands of deaths in prison from Covid-19, the Government’s health experts advised that a significant reduction in prison numbers was needed.
Doing so would have afforded prison staff the vital breathing space to protect lives whilst also protecting efforts for rehabilitation. Instead, the Government decided against that advice to release just 316 people out of a total prison population of nearly 84,000 over the course of the next six months.
Enforced isolation for nearly 24 hours a day within the confines of a six by nine-foot prison cell— in many cases shared with another person — became the new normal.
Prisons, many already overcrowded and in poor condition following years of more punitive sentencing laws and inadequate investment, were ill-equipped to respond to an epidemic.
Now, ministers are seeking to introduce measures through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will lengthen sentences and inflate our prison population still further.
Knowing what the people who live and work in prisons have had to endure over the last year this is inexplicable, and as one of the ministers responsible confirmed — unevidenced.
As the health experts revealed back in March, prisons are uniquely susceptible to the transmission of infection. Narrow corridors, shared showers, and crowded exercise yards, as well as routine security operations such as rub-downs and cell inspections all heighten the risk of prisons as potential ‘super-spreaders’ of a potent and airborne virus.
Research published by UCL earlier this month revealed that people in prison had a Covid-19 related death rate over three times higher than the general population, and that cases of the virus are also significantly higher in prisons.
As staff turn up to work from their homes, they are likely to come into contact and interact with many different prisoners. With inadequate space to maintain social distancing and poor ventilation it’s easy to see how the virus could begin to take hold.
Fast forward 12 months and prisoners still remain confined to their cells all day – a year spent in conditions which amount to solitary confinement. Family and legal visits have been suspended; classrooms, gyms, libraries, and workshops closed; offending behaviour programmes and sentence planning have been placed on hold.
One prisoner told the Prison Reform Trust’s CAPPTIVE project: “It’s almost as if we have been forgotten about, as if we are not as important as the outside world, as if our life doesn’t mean as much.”
The Government’s response has averted the worst predictions of loss of life from the virus. But as the Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned, and our own research conducted throughout the pandemic has shown, this has come at an extraordinary cost.
Left with little to occupy their time but their own thoughts, prisoners’ emotional and mental health have suffered. The full scale of the impact will take time to become fully apparent, and longer still to remedy. Another prisoner explained: “[We] are simply given a colouring pack. Depression, anxiety, discomfort, boredom and comfort eating… I feel I’m in the passenger seat of an out of control car and we are about to hit a brick wall.”
The stoicism and solidarity between prisoners and staff, often under intolerable pressures, have provided light in the darkness. But nothing can dull the pain of full days spent in isolation and inactivity.
The lockdown in prisons has meant that people are not getting the necessary support to resolve the very things that got them there in the first place. Prisoners have not been able to participate on offending behaviour programmes. These programmes are one way in which prisoners can demonstrate reduced risk to the parole board. For those who are reliant on Parole Board approval before they can be released, this could mean extra months or years spent in prison for a reason wholly beyond their control.
The last year has been hard on the whole country but knowing that our loved ones are a phone or Zoom call away has enabled us to still feel connected whilst apart. For prisoners, keeping in contact has been much more difficult. The long overdue expansion of phones in cells, has allowed those who have access to them to keep in regular contact and to check on the welfare of those family members left behind.
Prisoners are also now entitled to one 30-minute video call per month. This is a small step forward but needs to go much further. When so many of us have relied on the support of technology to aid us through this pandemic, the benefits are obvious. As one prisoner said: “I’m a life serving prisoner. I get my hope and joy by seeing my family. If it wasn’t for an in cell phone, I’d have turned insane by now or done something terrible to myself.”
Prisons will face huge challenges as they work to re-establish normal regimes. But the findings from inspectors, as well as our own research, suggest that trying to manage the risk of Covid by imposing solitary confinement is unsustainable.
The pandemic has shown that rehabilitation and public safety don’t come from locking people up all day, every day. These can come only from a way of life in prison that allows relationships between staff and prisoners to form and for trust to be built.
Dr Kimmett Edgar is head of research at the Prison Reform Trust. Alex Hewson, senior policy and communications officer and Paula Harriott, head of prisoner engagement also contributed to this report.