London, United Kingdom – Detainees throughout England and Wales were confined in their cells for almost 24 hours a day, with multiple cells built for one person, when the institution tried to stop the spread coronavirus. For those who are behind bars, the reality of life under locking carries an “unprecedented risk”.
Social distance is not possible in institutions that are already too crowded, and hygiene measures are difficult to enforce, making prisons the “petri dish” for the virus, experts have warned. And prisons will be increasingly forced to deal with fewer staff, making it more difficult to safely allow time outside the cell.
In March, an 84-year-old sex offender with an underlying health condition was the first British prisoner to die after contracting the virus. On Sunday, two more detainees died, and 88 were tested positive in 29 prisons, prompting an urgent call to release prisoners to try to slow down the rate of infection.
“We have a higher percentage of people who can die from it [in] general population, “Andrea Albutt, head of the Prison Governor Association (PGA), told Al Jazeera.
Last month, the National Audit Office revealed detainees held in unsafe and overcrowded conditions, many of which were forced to “double” in cells built for one. The report also found that detainees were held without access to the services they needed. It is feared that this will get worse with COVID-19 restrictions.
Prisons are required by the government to enforce measures to maintain social distance and locking procedures; the visit has been canceled, and the daily routine is suspended.
Apart from important work, such as in the kitchen or laundry, there are “no outside activities at all”, said Albutt: “Only a small number of prisoners can get out of their cells at one time to do their needs – Clean cells, bathe, make phone calls, time in the open air. “Albutt believes this happens every day, but warns it can change because staffing continues to decrease.
“We are at a point where the government must make a decision now; the virus is increasingly controlling our prisons. If we do not reduce the prison population type through the initial exemption scheme now, this week, we will have too many cases and it will not make a difference,” Albutt said. .
Pregnant women in custody who are not at high risk of harming the public will be temporarily released from prison in England and Wales within a few days, while up to 4,000 low-risk detainees will be released with a temporary license, the Ministry of Justice announced this. Sunday. This follows the movement in Northern Ireland to free up to 200 people who came to the last three months from their sentences. The Scottish government has proposed an emergency law to give ministers the power to release prisoners early if staff numbers fall below the “safe” level.
This step has followed urgent calls from prison governors and campaigning organizations including the Trust and Prison Reform Request to reduce the number of prisons and try to control the spread of the virus throughout the justice system which has the highest detention rates in Western Europe.
Al Jazeera understands that prisoners inside HMP Thameside, a private prison managed by Serco, are kept in cells for more than 23.5 hours at a time, with only 20 minutes exercising outside. A prisoner on Thameside, who suffers from severe PTSD from time inside, recently tweeted: “There is no greater test than when faced with solitude.” Serco, who manages six adult prisons in the UK, including HMP Thameside, told Al Jazeera that they followed the Ministry of Justice’s guidelines on social distance.
But the reality of this is the de facto only confinement.
“The disease rate of prison officials is increasing at a fairly exponential rate. There will be fewer staff keeping prisoners increasingly difficult,” said John Podmore, a former prison governor who is now a professor of applied social science at the University of Durham and a freelance criminal justice consultant.
“Prolonged locking will worsen mental health problems. An unprecedented word is not even enough to describe where we are,” he added. “If you imagine yourself in solitary confinement forced in a large toilet, with a toilet without screening and someone you’ve never met before, the implications for mental health are enormous,” he said.
Prisoners are more likely to suffer mental health problems than people in the community, but prisoners are less able to manage their mental health conditions because most aspects of their daily lives are controlled. And during these unprecedented times, little of their control is almost non-existent.
“Some prisoners will find it easier to deal with than others, if they avoid it, they might prefer to be alone, at first,” said Naomi Murphy, a clinical consultant and forensic psychologist and clinical director of the OPDP Fens Service at HMP Whitemoor, a prisons with high security Category A. “But a sizable portion of the population will seriously struggle with extended locking – this can cause health anxiety and apathy, but also self-harm and suicide.”
Prisoners who are already vulnerable will be severely beaten. “Those who suffer from paranoia will find it difficult to connect with the real world and they can find themselves in a spiral,” Murphy said. “Some people will struggle a lot with extended locking, and it will be difficult to get back on track with potential; for some people, this can be very terrible.”
I have seen prison officials in a new way.
Prisoner, HMP Nottingham
Being locked up in cells for a long time will also have an impact on immune health, and lack of access to daytime and free movement will make sleep more difficult, Murphy said. To reduce this, staff at HMP Whitemoor have introduced yoga and health packages to prisoners. And while the type of face-to-face mental health support previously offered is no longer possible, staff make use of talking to prisoners during practice hours, at a safe distance, and offering “open mailbox” contact through cell doors.
Other steps are being taken to help prisoners stay connected with friends and family. Free 10-minute phone calls every day are offered at Doncaster HMP, for example.
A prisoner at HMP Nottingham wrote a letter of thanks to the staff who they said had exceeded and exceeded the assignment. “I want to thank all the A Wing staff for waking up every morning and despite your own fears and worries to come to work to help us prisoners have time to get out of our cell and keep us renewed and treat us like equals,” they wrote. “I have seen prison officials in a new way.”
The Ministry of Justice said “the top priority” was to protect lives during the plague. “We have flexible plans to keep all staff and detainees as safe as possible, and issue secure telephone handsets to help perpetrators stay in touch with their loved ones.”
Justice Minister Robert Buckland said: “This is an unprecedented situation because if coronavirus is incarcerated in our prisons, the NHS can be overwhelmed and more lives at risk.
“All detainees will face difficult risk assessments and must comply with stringent requirements, including electronic alerts, while they are closely watched. Those who will not be called back to prison.”
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