'Solitary confinement' prison conditions during lockdown, MPs told

27 July 2020, 11:34

MPs also praised prisons for managing to avoid large outbreaks
MPs also praised prisons for managing to avoid large outbreaks. Picture: Getty

By Ewan Somerville

Prisons introduced conditions that were akin to solitary confinement during the lockdown, 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 on Monday, MPs said they were "concerned" at how the strict curbs, which stayed in place for 15 weeks and were yet to lift, would affect inmates in the long-term. 

But the committee also noted there was no mass outbreak in prisons, as feared. When the report was finalised, 23 prisoners and nine members of staff had died after contracting the virus.

MPs said the worst had so far been averted by accommodating prisoners, as far as was possible, in single-occupancy cells, keeping new arrivals and elderly prisoners in separate areas and suspending family visits. 

Prisoners were confined to their cells for most of the day during lockdown, MPs heard
Prisoners were confined to their cells for most of the day during lockdown, MPs heard. Picture: Getty

But 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".

The committee noted: "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."

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It also queried why a scheme rolled out in late April to release inmates within two months of their sentences ending saw the Ministry of Justice free just 200 prisoners - despite saying up to 4,000 would have been eligible.

In a separate review, the committee also called for an “overarching national strategy” to meet the needs of older prisoners. 

Prisoners aged over 60 hiked from 1,511 to 5,176 between 2002 and 2020 - an increase of more than 240%, driven by more men being prosecuted for sexual offences and longer sentences across the board.