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Howard League blog · 23 Mar 2022

Two years of lockdown in prison

Two years ago today, the Prime Minister told the British public that they were required by law to stay at home. After three national lockdowns and countless changes in the Covid-19 guidance and rules, most people have at last been able to return to their normal lives. But in prison, little has changed.

In survey responses gathered in February and March 2022, Howard League members who are in prison or have family members in prison told us about their experiences during the pandemic. They also told us what, in their view, the public needs to know.

Over the next few weeks, we will share our members’ experiences in a series of blogs. Most told us that they had found lockdown an extremely difficult time, where the things which made prison bearable – family visits, mental health care, education, music, church groups, sport – were snatched away. Those who caught Covid in prison experienced especially severe restrictions: in some prisons, they were not even allowed to shower while they were ill.

Overall, the responses underline that it has been exceptionally hard in prison over the past two years – and that the restrictions are by no means over. We await the prison service’s plan for emerging from the pandemic. As the public learns to live with the virus, we cannot ignore the tens of thousands of people who remain essentially locked down inside.

This first blog focuses on what people told us about their prison’s response to pandemic. Future blogs will explore the mental health impact of the pandemic and the suspension of family and social visits.

A prison within prison

One of the family members who wrote to us explained that two years into the pandemic, his relative was still locked in his cell for 21 hours a day. He thought his experience was “like being in prison within prison. In short a nightmare.”

As the Chief Inspector of Prisons stressed in his 2020 annual report, lockdown in prison meant that two people spent every day trapped together in a cell which had been designed for one – and which might well include an unscreened toilet.

One woman told us that those who feel prison is too easy “need to try eating, sleeping, washing, etc in one room with very little ventilation / fresh air”.

Another noted that:

I suppose Prison Officers and Governors do their best under very trying circumstances and COVID has affected everyone’s mental health, but to be locked in a small (8×10) cell, alone if you’re lucky, is inhumane.

Lockdown restrictions have lasted for an exceptionally long time in prison, though they have been (usually temporarily) eased at different times in different places. One person, who was more than ten years over tariff on an IPP sentence, described the back-and-forth:

It has taken 2 years for things to get back to normal. But we only got back into a lockdown again. But it’s over now. And it’s slowly going back … So still on lockdown. But at a lesser level.

One woman told us that those who feel prison is too easy “need to try eating, sleeping, washing, etc in one room with very little ventilation / fresh air”.

In the outside world, Public Health England advised people to create positive routines by planning out useful and meaningful activities, maintaining relationships and helping and supporting others.

In contrast, the routines of people in prison were prescribed by restrictive and – in some cases – chaotic prison regimes. As one woman put it: “At times it was complete chaos. The regime was changing literally every other day. It was distressing for most of us.”

Staff shortages continued to disrupt prison regimes, piling pressure on remaining staff and making it much harder for prisons to relax restrictions. The virus itself was by no means over, either: one response described how almost everyone on their wing had just tested positive.

Deteriorating relations

A few responses were positive about their prison’s response to the virus, and about the behaviour of staff. Others explained that the restrictions were undermined by staff who moved around the prison and did not necessarily test or use masks, or that they felt increasingly arbitrary.

One woman described staff “going from unit to unit and not changing P.P.E, staff deployed to a unit that is on isolation, then in the afternoon or later that day they are on a unit that isn’t on isolation! Then they are wondering why it is spreading”.

Some responses suggested that staff found it easier to keep people locked up than to interact with them face-to-face, or that they saw Covid as a helpful excuse for not acting on requests.

Two men at the same prison described a culture of favouritism and suggested that some people – managers’ favourites – had been able to avoid the harshest lockdown restrictions.

In the government’s Prisons Strategy White Paper, relationships between staff and people in prison are described as an important tool for improving safety in prison. If staff know and understand the people in their care, incidents can be prevented beforehand rather than reacted to after they have taken place.

Some responses suggested that staff found it easier to keep people locked up than to interact with them face-to-face, or that they saw Covid as a helpful excuse for not acting on requests.

One man told us that meaningful encounters with staff had been lost during the pandemic, replaced by utilitarian interactions which made it difficult to develop any mutual understanding.

Staff shortages and burnout had exacerbated the issues still further, and staff frustrations were translating into contempt towards people in the prison. He concluded that:

Staff have by and large withdrawn and many approach situations with indifference, apathy, and detachment, perhaps as a coping mechanism for the pressures they face and the hostility of the environment. This has created a vicious circle of deteriorating relations, heightened tensions, and a real sense of dehumanisation at the hands of a punitive and arbitrary power structure.

The steady erosion in staff attitudes over the COVID pandemic has completely delegitimised the use of authority and power in prisons, and prisoners have had enough. The tension is palpable now. I frequently see encounters boil over that could easily have been de-escalated through a compassionate and empathetic response from staff. We cannot continue this way, change must come, and come fast.

 Emerging from the pandemic

Though restrictions imposed in prison have undoubtedly saved lives, they have also eroded the quality of prison life and stored up problems which must now be faced.

The government’s Prisons Strategy White Paper overlooks these issues and assumes that the damage caused by the pandemic can be easily reversed.

Instead of exploring how prisons and the people in them can begin to recover from the past two years, the White Paper imagines a bigger prison estate which is also, somehow, more intimate.

Staff will have meaningful relationships with every person in their care and understand fully where they are coming from. Regimes will be carefully tailored to the population of a prison. People will be engaged in fulfilling and useful activities.

In reality, the Ministry of Justice cannot hope to transform the system without first addressing staff shortages and inexperience, the continued spread of the virus, and growing frustrations among people in prison.

The survey responses and the Howard League’s legal work suggest that problems with staffing – poor retention, illness, burnout, officers who have only worked in prison while the restrictions have been in place – are especially pressing and are preventing the estate from recovering.

In the prison system, as in the outside world, the virus has exposed pre-existing failures rather than creating new problems. As one survey response put it:

The prisons were poorly staffed, overcrowded before Covid, huge ‘super prisons’ are not the answer. The money would be better spent on preventing prisoners via supporting mental health, neurodiversity, poverty, diversion.

The pandemic should prompt serious reflection on the shortcomings exposed by Covid-19. In the meantime, there must be greater transparency about what is really happening in prison and a clear plan for emerging from the pandemic.

Andrea Coomber

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