Prisons introduced conditions that were akin to solitary confinement, MPs were told during an inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Commons Justice Committee was told that some prisoners in England and Wales were allowed out of their cells for only 30 minutes a day during the lockdown, which was brought in to stem the spread of Covid-19.
In their report published today, Monday 27th July, MPs said they were ‘concerned’ at how long such measures had been kept in place.
But the committee also praised the efforts of ministers, prison staff and those behind bars in ensuring there was no mass outbreak of Covid.
At the time of signing off the report, 23 prisoners and nine members of staff in the prison service had died after testing positive for the deadly virus.
The feared mass outbreaks of the disease did not occur, the committee noted, and MPs said the worst had so far been averted by accommodating prisoners, as far as was possible, in single occupancy cells and keeping new arrivals and older, vulnerable prisoners in separate areas.
Other measures taken included suspending family visits, introducing social distancing and extending lockdowns where needed.
During the inquiry, the Howard League for Penal Reform told members the conditions in prisons were ‘consistent with, or very close to, international definitions of solitary confinement (22 hours or more alone each day)’.
Dame Anne Owers, national chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), stated in a letter to the committee that some prisons were ‘providing as little as 30 minutes a day out of cell, or exercise only every other day’.
In their report conclusion, the MPs stated: ‘We are concerned about how long lockdown measures have been in place, and while we recognise the increased complexities of moving a prison out of lockdown, we are concerned about the effect severe restrictions will have on prisoners.
‘The prison estate has been in a state of lockdown for 15 weeks, and it is concerning that prisoners have not yet begun to transition from that state.’
The committee has called on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to set out how it plans to mitigate against any negative effects on those who have been locked up for most hours of the day.
It also queried why, after introducing an ‘End of custody temporary release’ scheme in late April, which was designed to reduce overcrowding in prisons in light of the pandemic, the MoJ released just 200 prisoners despite declaring up to 4,000 would have been eligible.
Chairman Sir Bob Neill said: “We are most grateful to the ministry, prison governors and prison officers for the vital work they are doing to respond to the pandemic and protect those in their care and the public.
“But we hope the Covid-19 lockdown in prisons can be carefully eased, with consistency across the prison estate, as it is being eased in the wider community.”
The Justice Committee also carried out a separate review into the impact of the ageing population in prisons.
The number of prisoners over the age of 60 has risen between 2002 and 2020 from 1,511 to 5,176 – an increase of more than 240 per cent.
The increase has been driven mainly by more men being prosecuted for sexual offences and by longer sentences across a range of offences, meaning more people grow old in prison, it said.
The committee is calling on the MoJ to establish a national strategy for older prisoners, so their needs, particularly in relation to social care and poor disabled access in Victorian-era buildings, were met more consistently across the prison estate.
Sir Bob added: “We need an overarching national strategy, pulling together health and social care, with timelines and accountabilities to ensure it is delivered.”
Picture: Archive photo, dated 07/11/03, of a prison cell. Prisons introduced conditions that were akin to solitary confinement, MPs were told during an inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. (Paul Faith/PA).