Justice and Fairness in Prisons · 9 Apr 2020
Protecting the rights of those who remain in prison during a pandemic
The last Justice and Fairness blogpost discussed how, in the middle of a pandemic, the rights of people in prison are more important than ever. Last week’s post focussed on the need to release people from prison in order to relieve pressure on the system. This week’s post focusses on the daily experiences of those who remain inside.
Over the weekend, the government announced that they would release up to 4,000 people who are within 2 months of their release date over the coming weeks. This seemed to be a significant step which paved the way for much-needed further action. However it is becoming clear that the restrictions and complicated requirements of the release scheme may mean that only a tiny proportion of those 4,000 who might be eligible will actually be released. We have just written to the Secretary of State for Justice outlining what more needs to be done. But even if the government does go further in releasing people, what about those who will inevitably remain inside? Their rights and their health – and, consequently, the public health of the wider community – must be protected too.
Since the lockdown began two weeks ago, we have heard multiple reports – both from people in prison through our legal adviceline and from concerned relatives – of the new constraints that people in prison are living under. Unlike the constraints that the rest of us are living with, which might be difficult, or tedious, or lonely, but help to protect us from the spread of disease, the constraints that people in prison are living under often do precisely the opposite and put them directly in the way of harm. Failing to protect vulnerable people in prison from the spread of disease risks breaching the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Batchelet, warned last week.
Prison healthcare has long been a source of serious concern. In 2018, a report by the Health and Social Care Committee concluded that “the Government is failing in this duty of care towards people detained in prisons in England. Too many prisoners remain in unsafe, unsanitary conditions that fall far short of the standards we should expect.” We have heard multiple reports of shortages of hygiene facilities, cleaning products and PPE in prisons. One concerned relative told us that:
there is no disinfectant, no gloves for staff or cleaners, no hand gel and the work parties are still moving between different sections, making a mockery of lockdown and isolating any contamination.
Prisoners aged over 60 are the fastest growing group within the prison population and healthcare provision in prisons has not been able to keep up. A Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) review in 2017 identified “unacceptable examples of poor care of the elderly and dying in prison” and reported that “there is still no properly resourced older prisoner strategy, to drive consistent provision across prisons” despite the PPO having called repeatedly for such a strategy.
The provision of care in prisons has been put under even more strain by the coronavirus pandemic. We have heard reports of people over 70 with conditions such as emphysema (a progressive disease of the lungs) who will not be released following the government’s announcement because they still have four (rather than two) months left to serve in prison. We have also heard several reports of people in prison with asthma – teenagers among them – who made requests for inhalers before the Covid-19 lockdown but are still waiting to receive them. This is not unusual: people in prison often have to wait a long time to get their health concerns acted upon. As one teenager put it:
It’s much harder being in jail now. They think two people on my wing have the virus – they are not allowed out their cell but I am worried I will get it and I have asthma. Some people have to share cells.
Another young person in prison told the Howard League that:
It’s scary, there are a couple of cases on every wing. It’s not safe for a person like me who’s asthmatic.
Coronavirus places even more pressure on already over-stretched resources and make it harder to protect vulnerable people – inside and outside prison – from the spread of disease. The government need to take swift action to reduce the prison population so that those who remain can receive prompt and effective care.
Most people in prison are now spending 23 hours out of 24 in their cells with virtually no activities or interventions. We have heard reports of education sheets being handed out to children under the door. One child in prison told the Howard League’s legal team that these sheets contained some Maths and English exercises that would take him between 20 to 25 minutes a day to complete. There was no support with this work. We have heard of adult prisoners who have been supplied with colouring books and crayons in order to pass the time. As one distressed relative put it:
[My partner] gets 15 minutes on the yard a day then he’s locked back up until the next day it’s disgusting. He was handed 6 colouring pencils and a colouring book yesterday to keep him occupied! He’s 32 not 2!!
Most people in prison report getting between half an hour to an hour of outdoor exercise a day, limited access to showers and handwashing facilities and a decline in the quality of prison food due to kitchen staff shortages. We have heard reports of prisons where no fresh fruit or vegetables are available. A young person in prison gave us this account of daily life under lockdown:
They get us up at 7.45 in the morning, but you don’t sleep properly anyway, your 25 minutes out of cell start from them shouting you awake, not when you get to the social room, it doesn’t leave enough time for a shower and to get outside. The day drags out.
Relatives have spoken of their deep concerns for the mental health of those imprisoned in these conditions. In the first two months of this year, eleven people have already taken their own lives in prison. Standards of care and nourishment must be improved for those that remain inside.
The government could start by distributing more mobile phones. Severely limited access to the outside world is another enormous problem for prisoners in lockdown. The prison service recently distributed 900 mobile phones across the 57 prisons that do not already have in-cell telephony. The prison population currently stands at 82,456 – 900 phones are nowhere near enough. These handsets will be shared between prisoners and between cells which is neither fair nor hygienic. People in prison should not have to choose between contacting their families (Lord Farmer’s report last year revealed the enormously important role maintaining family contacts has on reducing reoffending) and contracting a potentially fatal illness.
It is crucial that the cumbersome processes and bureaucratic delays that characterise prison life at the best of times do not compound the public health crisis we are facing. In one especially Kafka-esque example, we have heard about a man who came down with all the symptoms of coronavirus while out on temporary release from prison. Despite his illness, he was required to return to prison and had to take public transport in order to do so. Another prisoner who was also due to return to prison after being out on temporary release told us:
I’m due to return to a now locked down camp where I will have no chance of self-distancing or isolation. I have to share a small room with another inmate and one shower and three toilets with 40 plus not to mention a canteen servery with 200.
All of this is happening at time when there is barely any independent scrutiny or monitoring of what goes in prisons. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has suspended almost all of its prison inspections in line with social distancing measures and the work of the Independent Monitoring Boards has been greatly restricted. The reports that we are receiving from people in prison and their relatives are all the more important for that reason. Now, more than ever, we must listen to the voices of those in prison and take swift action.