Thousands of prisoners locked in cells for more than 22 hours a day

Thousands of prisoners have been locked up in "grim" and "overcrowded" cells for more than 22 hours a day during the coronavirus pandemic.

Featherstone prison near Wolverhampton
Featherstone prison near Wolverhampton

Time inmates are spending out of their cells has been severely restricted at prisons across the country to try and prevent Covid-19 outbreaks.

But with the policy having been in place for months at some prisons, it has led to questions about the treatment of prisoners, the impact on their mental health and long-term strategy for their management.

Hundreds of inmates at HMP Featherstone, near Wolverhampton, have been confined to their cells for around 22 hours a day since March.

Inspections during the pandemic found inmates being kept in the same conditions across the country.

A Featherstone prison officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Express & Star around 100 of the 700 prisoners were let out for work but the rest were generally "behind the door".

He said: "They have an hour or so a day's exercise time. Then they come out for lunch and dinner.

"It's been like that since March. It's not good for their mental health. It's very solitary, they're on their own.

"They are allowed extra phone calls home but it's still not the same. They still need to socialise.

"I know some people don't agree with it but at the end of the day they are still humans."

A Prison Service spokesman said the management of inmates was being considered on prison-by-prison basis, depending on the risk of infection, and stressed the importance of preventing the spread of coronavirus.

He said some inmates at Featherstone were let out to work and that those who didn't were also given time out of their cells, but did not clarify how much.

The spokesman said: “We have robust and flexible plans in place to keep prisoners, staff and the wider public safe based on the latest advice from Public Health England.”

G4S, which runs HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton, Britain's largest prison, where there were early Covid-19 outbreaks, said inmates had access to exercise and workshops, "albeit at a reduced capacity".

The rising coronavirus cases across the UK is thought to have prompted tougher restrictions at some prisons.

And the dilemma prison governors have faced is how inmates can spend time out of their cells while preventing the risk of the virus spreading like wildfire throughout the jail.

Up to 30 prison staff are understood to be away from Featherstone after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The Prison Service said this had not disrupted the running of the jail.

Those inmates who have contracted Covid-19 inside have been put into isolation while they recover but it has been claimed prisoners have been kept in conditions akin to social confinement anyway over recent months.

Prisons campaign group the Howard League for Penal Reform cited several prison inspections carried out during the pandemic where inmates were found to be locked up for most of the day, raising questions about the impact on their health. There are also concerns some prisoners have been cooped up in cells not designed to hold more than one person.

A report on Whatton Prison in Nottingham said "most prisoners were locked up for around 22 hours a day, which was clearly taking its toll on many of those inspectors spoke to".

Another on HMP Hewell in Worcestershire said: "Prison leaders at both local and national level should take note of the fact that 70 per cent of the prisoners we surveyed at Hewell reported problems with their mental health. One hour out of cell each day was simply not enough."

Frances Crook, Howard League chief executive, said: "Although the spread of the virus has been largely contained in prisons up to now, thanks to the extraordinary efforts on the ground by people living and working in them, this has come at huge cost.

"Tens of thousands of people, including children, have been forced to spend months in grim conditions – locked up for more than 22 hours a day, either in solitary confinement or overcrowded cells, and denied purpose and the opportunity to make amends.

"At such a challenging time, it makes sense to reduce the prison population and ease pressure on the system."

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Select Committee said in June: "While it recognises the complexity of moving a prison out of lockdown, the committee is concerned about the effect severe restrictions will have on prisoners, including on the mental health of adults and children."

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