Overall, we now know how hospitals, nursing homes, schools and most other public institutions have coped or not coped with the Covid pandemic. But not until now, with this shocking, distressing, genuine and academically sound study, have we had the unvarnished truth about conditions in UK prisons.
The report, by prisoner-run charity User Voice and Queen’s University Belfast, finds that 85% of prisoners said they were locked up for at least 23 hours a day, for long periods of time. The consequences were sadly predictable: off-scale anxiety, depression, self-harm and mental illness.
“Prisoners are given medicine all day and sleep and scream out the window all night,” says one account. “I mean, 23 hours of bang-ups is really not good,” said another. “Some of these guys are really sick, there’s one guy screaming… his head is going deeper and deeper into the sewer.”
This in a system that was in crisis before Covid, with suicide and self-harm rates on the rise. It was overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed. Prison mental health services were inadequate at best before Covid; since the epidemic, in some prisons, they are non-existent. Support services have largely disappeared, the gymnasium has stopped, education has stopped, family visits have ceased. Even taking a shower became difficult.
I have read many reports on life and death in prisons and this is the most comprehensive and reliable that has come down to me. It begs to be read and put into practice, because the torture – and I don’t use the word lightly – detailed in its pages has not ended with the lifting of Covid restrictions in our society at large.
Under the UN’s Nelson Mandela rules, the definition of solitary confinement is 22 hours a day without significant human contact. To undergo 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. This report shows that thousands of prisoners have endured much longer in solitary confinement than that – and still endure, in some prisons.
Thousands of prisoners have reached the end of their sentences during the Covid crisis, released into society without rehabilitation or proper health care after enduring this torture. As the report asks, “How can the mental health time bomb created during this period be addressed?”
Dr Bob Johnson, a former consultant psychiatrist in prisons, who saw the report, said: “We put people in prison because they have done things that harm society. So we hurt them more to make them better. This treatment amounts to torture, it is senseless and sadistic and guaranteed to inflict pain on society.
In 1991, a Guardian editorial hailed Lord Woolf’s report on the Strangeways Prison riot as a “plan for the restoration of decency and justice to prisons, where conditions had been intolerable”. It was ignored by the government and probably forgotten by the general public.
Take it from whoever was there – at Strangeways and many other prisons – before and after Woolf: conditions are now worse for many thousands incarcerated due to mental health issues. The public would be wise to make sure the government doesn’t get away with it this time around.