Counting the costs of extreme lockdown in prisons

Richard Garside
Friday, 30 October 2020

“They’re going grey in the face and are constantly tired and worn out. They haven’t had any sunlight.”

These are the words of Alison, a nurse at a prison in Wales, talking to The Guardian about the physical impact of extreme lockdown. Many prisoners across the UK are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, with drastic curbs on exercise and family contact.

The impact has been psychological as well as physiological. “The most heartbreaking spectacle”, said Mary, a prisoner in southern England, “was seeing women…denied visits from their children, then, when visits resumed, not being able to touch their offspring. You cannot give solace to such women; you can only listen to their grief”.

The outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, last week told the BBC that the government and prison service needed to find a different way to control coronavirus in prisons. “To have people locked in their cells for 23 hours a day for seven months so far, that’s bad enough” he said. He continued:

“Now that we’re in a state where it looks as if the pandemic is going to continue for some considerable time…are we really saying that we’re going to keep prisoners locked in their cells for 23 hours a day for another three months, another six months, another year? That can’t be right”.

The different way to control coronavirus has always been clear. As the World Health Organisation, the Prison Governors’ Association, among others, argued at the start of this crisis, we need a controlled release of thousands of prisoners unnecessarily detained, to create the conditions for social distancing that our overcrowded prisons cannot possibly deliver.

The government's stubborn commitment to a draconian lockdown in prisons stands in stark contrast to the more flexible approach it has adopted for society as a whole.

This week, a legal challenge to the Prison Service’s policy on transgender prisoners began. It was quickly adjourned until the New Year, following the failure of the Ministry of Justice to provide the court with the relevant paperwork in a timely manner.

The challenge, brought in the name of a female prisoner who was sexually assaulted by a male transgender prisoner while in a women’s prison, claims that the current prison service approach discriminates against female prisoners.

I was asked to provide a written submission in support of the challenge; something I was happy to do. In seeking, rightly, to ensure fairness for transgender prisoners, the Prison Service has failed to consider fully the impact of its policies on female prisoners.

I hope that the legal challenge, when it recommences in the New Year, prompts a rethink by the Prison Service.