Locked down and up: fears over virus impact on UK prisoners

London (AFP) –


Concern is growing about the potential long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on prisoners in England and Wales, even though jails have avoided the worst predictions about infections.

Covid-19 cases and deaths have been kept below the dire forecasts at the start of the crisis by imposing restrictions on prisons.

New arrivals have been quarantined, those with symptoms and the most vulnerable isolated, but often at the expense of maintaining only the most basic aspects of the regime.

Food, medication and showers are still provided, alongside minimal daily exercise, with prisoners kept inside their cells almost all the time.

Four justice system inspectorates last week said some inmates were being held "in conditions which effectively amounted to solitary confinement".

It warned of the consequences of "the lack of meaningful human interaction", including face-to-face education and work on rehabilitation.

Chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor told lawmakers at a hearing there was a "deep malaise" among prisoners, who were "chronically bored and frustrated".

Inmates had reported their mental health is suffering and some are turning to drugs to cope, he added.

"They're feeling helpless and without hope... (and) have frequently described themselves as feeling like caged animals," he said.

- 'Incredibly isolated' -

A more contagious virus variant that has led to surging UK infections, and tougher restrictions nationwide this month, has made the situation worse.

The rate of new cases behind bars has nearly quadrupled and officials have recorded 24 deaths since mid-December, while the number of sites seeing outbreaks has risen from 53 to 70.

As the situation deteriorates, all social visits are currently cancelled, with facilities trying to increase the use of video-calling instead.

Meanwhile as the courts system suffers its own fallout with a huge backlog of cases, more remand prisoners -- who are typically less settled behind bars -- are spending longer in jail awaiting trial.

The prison population fell by 5,100 between mid-March and late November, to 78,800, due primarily to the court delays but also following the early release of some low-risk and vulnerable offenders.

However, many facilities remain over-crowded.

Helen Dyson, of social justice charity Nacro, said the lockdowns had not sparked riots and disturbances that have been seen in some UK prisons in recent years.

She said there was "a consensus among prisoners that this is being done for the right reasons". But she also said there was a knock-on effect.

"There's no denying that when you're locked in a box for 23 hours a day, effectively, that definitely will impact on your well-being," Dyson told AFP.

"(That is) a long time to be sat with your own thoughts and concerns and worries and anxieties."

Nacro, which has support staff working in 34 facilities as well as a community team outside prisons, was already seeing an increase in people reporting mental health issues after they are released.

"Once they come out they're also incredibly isolated in a way that they wouldn't have been before," Dyson added.

"It's almost like coming out of one prison and into another."

- 'Staffing difficulties' -

Britain has been the hardest hit in Europe from Covid-19, and its prisons have fared little better, with higher case counts and death tolls than European neighbours such as Italy and Spain.

More than 100 prisoners in England and Wales have died from the virus and nearly 8,000 inmates have been infected since it spread early last year, according to Ministry of Justice statistics.

Among prison staff employed directly or indirectly, there were 21 deaths and almost 3,200 positive cases by the end of October.

However, at the pandemic's outset officials feared explosive outbreaks within the two nations' 117 prisons, with some predictions warning of 2,700 inmate deaths.

Given that, there has been limited criticism of the overall handling of the pandemic.

Meanwhile after weeks of surging infections, there are now "some staffing difficulties in establishments", unions warn.

"It's been very difficult because obviously we've never faced anything like this," said Mick Pimblett, of the POA, which represents 30,000 prison staff.

He told AFP it is pushing for members to be prioritised for vaccinations, as Britain rolls out its biggest inoculation programme in stages, with some key workers among the first to get jabs.

"We are the same as healthcare workers and police, who are working with high numbers of people who are Covid positive, sometimes at close quarters in a poorly ventilated environment," Pimblett said.