Blog: Time out of cell
In this blog, PRT director Peter Dawson queries the government’s insistence that prisoners are not being limited to an hour a day out of their cells, and shares what we’ve been doing to clarify what is really happening as prisons try to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In December last year, the prisons minister said this in an answer to a written parliamentary question about what was happening to prisoners during the pandemic:
“Whilst time out of cell has at times been reduced due to these restrictions, prisons are not limiting prisoners to leaving their cells for one hour per day.”Victoria Atkins, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice
We were surprised to read this, because we knew that many prisoners were telling us that they often had to spend 23 hours or more in their cell every day. Repeatedly, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has reported the same in individual inspection reports, based on direct observation.
So we wrote to the minister querying the answer she had given. It wasn’t just that we thought it was factually wrong, but that we weren’t confident that there was any mechanism that would allow the minister to know whether what she was saying was true or not.
We heard nothing, so in February we wrote again, reminding her about the correspondence, and asking a simple factual question inviting her to say how many prisoners spent 23 hours in their cell on any specific date of her choosing.
More time passed, and eventually — more than 4 months after we had first written — we received a response. But it scrupulously avoided answering the question we asked. It just ignored the central concern — that there is no way of knowing how many prisoners are having to spend 23 hours or more a day in their cell.
This still matters. Alarmingly, in response to a recent press query, on 20 April the Ministry of Justice said that “restrictions are now easing with almost half of all adult prisons already back to normal”. This is alarming because the national framework for regime restrictions during Covid has always made clear that “stage one” of that framework — which is what this MoJ comment is referring to — is not what would have been considered “normal” before the pandemic. Nor is it a guarantee that locally restrictions can’t be re-imposed by the Governor from day to day or week to week.
So we have a department happy to tell the public that prisons are “back to normal”, but unable or unwilling to say how many prisoners are spending all day locked behind a cell door. Our concern is that the reality of the situation — driven by staff shortages in particular — is that being stuck in your cell all day is still a very common experience for many prisoners and likely to remain so.
Ministers need to find out what’s happening, and give a straight answer to a straight question.