The Victorian gatehouse that visitors to Leicester often mistake for a castle is all the public usually see of the crumbling inner-city jail that I inspected with my team just before Christmas last year.
For the last ten months, most prisoners in Leicester have only been let out of cells for 50 minutes a day. Prisoners elsewhere have fared little better, with an average of only 90 minutes unlocked. The cells in Leicester, usually shared by two men, are about six foot by eleven in size – fairly standard for this sort of prison. They contain a basin, a bunkbed, some drawers, a television set and a toilet in the corner that is usually unscreened. The barred window allows a little air to circulate in the chilly cells, but it fails to dissipate the smell of men living out their lives in such close proximity in a prison where clean underwear is only supplied twice a week. In the short time they are let out, prisoners have to fit in phone calls to their families, buying food and toiletries, a shower and some time in the exercise yard.
In September and October last year, inspectors went to six prisons including those holding women and children to interview inmates about their experience of the pandemic. The report, published today, reveals a deep malaise that has affected prisoners whose diminished existence is characterised by hopelessness, helplessness and crushing boredom. As one prisoner told us, “It’s like being imprisoned, while you are in prison.”
Even when lockdowns were eased in the summer, few prisoners were able to do prison work – there was little vocational training and most programmes to deal with offending behaviour were suspended. There has been limited face-to-face education and the best most prisoners can expect is a learning pack pushed under their cell door, hardly the inspiration needed for a group who often struggle with basic reading. In order to get moved to open prisons, where they can get into the habit of getting up, going to work and preparing for release, prisoners must show that their behaviour has improved, but this is not possible when they almost never leave their “pads”.
Visits have been cancelled during the lockdowns and when they resumed, there were strict social distancing rules, that meant one prisoner got a hefty punishment when the young child he had not seen for months jumped onto his father’s lap. A twenty-year-old man wrote to tell me he had not seen any family members for over a year. This is particularly concerning, as prisoners with strong family relationships are less likely to reoffend. The prison service has done well to introduce video calling and for some prisoners this has been a lifeline, but slots are limited and, on average, each prisoner has had one video call since last April. Delays in the courts mean that prisoners, including children, are sometimes having to spend more than a year in prison before their case even comes to court.
For some, the boredom is alleviated by use of drugs, which continue to find their way into prisons. The drug market creates debts and these must be paid, if not in cash, then in kind, meaning that prisoners can become the expendable foot-soldiers of sophisticated organised crime gangs.
The plight of prisoners may not evoke much sympathy at a time when the rest of us have been stuck at home. Indeed, the public is often understandably unsympathetic to people who have committed crimes, especially the most serious and violent. But apart from a handful of lifers, all of the 78,000 prisoners in England and Wales will one day be released. With such limited opportunities to get the training, education and skills that they need to turn their lives around, there is a danger that many will reoffend. That means more victims of crime, anti-social behaviour, violence and drug dealing. When people leave prison we want them to stop committing offences, to get jobs, pay taxes and take care of their families – but if we do not offer them opportunities to change, then many will too easily slip back into their old habits.
Back in April last year, the prison service responded admirably to the pandemic and, without doubt, prevented the deaths of a great many prisoners and officers. But, as restrictions begin to be lifted in the next weeks and months, there must be a much more ambitious response to restoring education, training and rehabilitation than there was in the summer. If not, then with an average cost of forty thousand pounds a year to keep someone in prison and with more crime on the streets, all of us will pay.
Charlie Taylor is Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons