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'They Want Us to Shut Up, Get Well or Die' – Inside Britain's Prisons During Coronavirus

Prisoners are resorting to defecating in buckets, and families fear for their safety, as the prison system struggles to cope with the strain of the pandemic.
23 April 2020, 1:00pm
HM Prison Pentonville
HM Prison Pentonville. Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

On the 9th of March, two weeks before the UK went into coronavirus lockdown, a magistrate remanded a man to prison on suspicion of committing burglary. By the time the man in his fifties, Jason,* entered Pentonville prison that evening, the UK was dealing with 319 cases of coronavirus, which the chief medical adviser warned was spreading "really quite fast".

Jason was classed as a "red band" or trusted prisoner, and put to work deep-cleaning Pentonville to guard against the virus. On the 25th of March, Jason's cellmate started coughing, turning red from the exertion. Jason alerted prison staff, but they didn't separate the cellmates until two days later, by which point Jason was also sick. Pentonville staff moved them to separate cells on J-wing, which was full of suspected cases of coronavirus.

Jason is an asthmatic with underlying heart and lung problems. Two days before he was isolated, he had asked prison staff for his prescription inhaler as his old one had run out, but was told a replacement wasn't due until the 9th of April. Lying in his cell on J-wing, Jason struggled for breath – a prison nurse had told him he didn't have much air capacity, but when he begged a prison officer again for his inhaler he was told: "Fuck off, it's not a hotel."

"I felt scared, because my lungs aren't good anyway, and I had the symptoms of coronavirus," Jason says. "I was frightened because coronavirus attacks the lungs, and I couldn't breathe, and I needed my inhaler."

"Once you have suspected coronavirus, they're frightened"

After six days of this, following a complaint Jason's partner made to NHS England, a member of the healthcare staff came into his cell and threw him an inhaler, the same way prison officers had been throwing him his evening bag of food.

"The whole thing, the way they treated us, is fear-based," Jason says. "Once you're on that wing, once you have suspected coronavirus, they're frightened – two officers died… They don't want to talk to you, they just want you to shut up, be in there and get well or die."

On the 9th of April, after two weeks in isolation, Jason was moved to a bigger wing that Pentonville was using for suspected coronavirus patients. The electricity was off and there was no phone in his cell, so Jason couldn't call his partner, who had been his lifeline throughout his battle with what he thinks was coronavirus.

Requests to an officer for a phone call went ignored. "I just felt despair," Jason says. "Because I tried to talk to him and he just wouldn't have it." That evening, Jason attempted to hang himself but was found and cut down by an officer. The next day, Pentonville returned him to "general population", where the majority of prisoners are. Despite repeated requests, officers on general population didn't give Jason his antidepressants, telling him he'd have to wait until the next day. On the 14th of April, due to his partner's ceaseless efforts, a judge released Jason on bail.

"It's been hard, really hard, to readjust," Jason says. "All of a sudden I've got all this space and no one being horrible to me, and someone being nice to me, and I can't take that sometimes." Jason and his partner are now preparing for his trial in June, and Jason is clear that he feels remorse for what he has done. "Just because I'm guilty," he adds, "doesn’t mean I should be dehumanised."

As Liberty Investigates has found, the coronavirus pandemic poses a unique threat to the UK's overcrowded prison estate. Crumbling infrastructure and staff shortages have made it difficult to keep prisoners apart or put everyone in single-cell accommodation. Prisoners say they have not been issued with basic sanitation supplies, while staff walk around without adequate PPE. Most of the closed prison estate is now operating on a 23.5-hour lockdown, something usually seen in the case of riots, which blow over far faster than a viral outbreak. For the 30 minutes they have out of their cells, prisoners can usually shower and make a phone call, or exercise. Some say they've been kept locked up for 48 hours at a time, while those without toilets in their cells are resorting to defecating in buckets. As of the 20th of April, 287 prisoners had tested positive for the virus across 65 prisons, as had 217 staff across 54 prisons.

The Ministry of Justice does not provide figures for individual prisons, but in late March Pentonville told Jason's partner that they were dealing with 19 suspected cases of coronavirus – although Jason says he thinks more prisoners were sick than that. Jason says he and his cellmate were never tested for the virus, and he isn't aware of other tests being done. Pentonville also told Jason's partner that they didn’t have any tests.

Jason says that although there are good officers in Pentonville, "We were in the dark and we needed to know what was happening. We were making standard queries, but [the officers] got flustered, they just left you in [the isolation cells]. It felt as if we were being punished."

This uncertainty is being felt throughout the prison estate. Families of prisoners say that the restrictive lockdown, coupled with the cancellation of visits, is causing their loved ones stress and anxiety, worsened by their fear of contracting the virus.

Charlotte Henry's brother, Alex Henry, is serving 19 years in HMP Whitemoor under the courts' now-discredited interpretation of joint enterprise. Until the 3rd April, Alex was being asked to shower with other prisoners in a shared stall, despite Whitemoor having at least one suspected case of coronavirus. He chooses to spend his 30 minutes out of his cell speaking to Charlotte and having a shower, although he tells her the phones aren't sanitised between uses and that officers have told prisoners to do it themselves.

"He was given [15] Dettol wipes two weeks ago by the prison," Charlotte says. "Any other form of soap or detergent he has to buy from his own spend, but the canteen they order from has run out."

The greatest anxiety, from both families and prisoners, centres around prison officers who may inadvertently bring the virus into work. Prisoners say officers are not wearing protective equipment, are not observing social distancing and are not sanitising themselves adequately after interacting with suspected coronavirus cases. Anxiety among prisoners may be increasing. At HMP Manchester, a man with a history of self-harm cut his throat in what he said was a protest at how the institution was responding to coronavirus. After medical treatment, the man recovered.

Across the country, prison officers, for their part, say they feel burned out. A prison officer at one prison – who asked to remain anonymous, as officers are asked to sign confidentiality agreements – said they understood prisoners' fears, but that "it's simply not practical, at all, to socially distance in the spaces that we're trying to work in… There's a lot of stuff that we simply just – we can’t stop searching people's cells, we can't stop doing a lot of the stuff that people [are complaining about]."

The officer adds that their workload has drastically increased since prisoners can only be taken out of their cells in small groups. "A lot of people are feeling an element of burnout," the officer says.

Although officers have been issued goggles, masks, aprons and gloves to wear when working with sick prisoners, they don't wear them around healthy prisoners in case it provokes anxiety or resentment that only the officers have PPE.

"It is the staff who are bringing [coronavirus] in," the officer says. "Our first few cases were on units where [the prisoners] don't interact with anybody. The people they meet with on a regular basis are the staff… But there's nothing we can do to minimise that contact."

The officer is clear that they are doing all they can to prevent the spread of the virus, but acknowledges the current situation is dangerous for prisoners. A colleague, the officer says, was handcuffed to a prisoner with coronavirus to take them for medical treatment, and then returned to the main prison to continue work.

The officer says not enough is being done to protect staff. They say the prison they work at issued guidance to officers stating that they cannot self-isolate unless they are showing symptoms, despite the possibility of people being infectious before symptoms begin. The officer says that staff who are high risk were asked not to self-isolate. Staff who had already done so, whether to protect themselves or high-risk family members, were told to return to work.

Mark Fairhurst, National Chair of the Prison Officers' Association, says that testing for staff is now available, after the government announced it was increasing testing for frontline workers on the 17th of April. He adds that all prisoners who are showing symptoms of coronavirus should receive testing.

But Fairhurst acknowledged some of the concerns the prison officer expressed. "Staff within prisons are following all Public Health England guidelines on the use of PPE," he says. "Although staff would like to routinely wear PPE, especially face masks, they are being informed by both PHE and their managers that this is not necessary as a routine procedure."

The main safety measure prisons have taken is to keep prisoners in their cells for as long as possible, with Whitemoor – where Alex Henry is – implementing a 24-hour lockdown between the 3rd and 10th of April. But lockdown, however sensible, brings its own challenges, particularly for prisons which were already struggling before the pandemic.

HMP Long Lartin. Jonathan Apple / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2019, the Independent Monitoring Board for Long Lartin, a prison in Worcestershire, wrote that accommodation for around half of the prisoners lacked "running water and sanitation, falling below modern standards of decency". Under lockdown, these sanitation issues have worsened.

A former prisoner – who asked to remain anonymous, as he is serving the remainder of his sentence in the community and does not want to jeopardise this – said that a friend at HMP Long Lartin told him they are having to push a button to be taken to use the toilet, since they don't have them in their cells. This procedure is normally used in Long Lartin at night, but under lockdown it has become the norm. As a result, some prisoners are having to wait hours to be allowed to relieve themselves.

"They have to use a bucket, if it's an emergency," the source says. "[Without sinks], if they have [bottled] water, it's either a choice between drinking that water or using that water to wash their hands." The situation, the source says, is taking its toll on the prisoner they know. "He feels oppressed... He feels powerless. He's not being given any equipment, any extra sanitation, he's not even got the basics he was getting before. It's really affecting him mentally."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Prison Service said it is trying to alleviate mental health problems by providing secure phones to prisoners at 55 prisons, which will include access to services such as the Samaritans. The spokesperson also said that support, in the form of in-cell worship, exercise and managing anxiety, will be provided.

The spokesperson added: "We have robust and flexible plans in place [to] keep prisoners, staff and the wider public safe based on the latest advice from Public Health England. Personal protective equipment is being provided to officers, and all prisons have the soap and cleaning materials they need."

Although some prisoners, like Alex Henry, say they need better hygiene options, it has become more difficult for them to make complaints. Due to coronavirus, the Independent Monitoring Boards are having to monitor prisons remotely, with the possibility of limited visits, while the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is unable to deal with complaints escalated to it that have been sent by mail. (In a written statement, the Ombudsman said it has made prisoners aware of this through prison radio and in-cell televisions, and that it is still handling complaints left via its voicemail service.) The prison officer Liberty Investigates spoke to added that staff's increased workload means they have less time for paperwork, and so certain things, which might include adding a family member's phone number to a prisoner’s list of approved calls, have started to slip.

"During these difficult times we have to prioritise essential tasks," Fairhurst says. "It is inevitable that some admin tasks will not be prioritised, but it is vital that, wherever possible, prisoners access showers, phones and exercise in the open air. The most vulnerable will still be assessed and catered for despite regime restrictions."

The government has made some attempts to address the situation in prisons. In early April it said it would give early release to 4,000 low-risk prisoners, although this scheme has now been suspended after six people were mistakenly released. It is due to resume this week. The government has also said it will build 500 temporary cells to get more prisoners into single-cell accommodation, starting with prisons that lack in-cell sanitation, hold a large number of vulnerable prisoners and have the highest number of shared cells.

But Phil Martin, a former prisoner who now campaigns for more offender rehabilitation to reduce reoffending, says these efforts are minimal given the UK's prison population amounts to over 80,000 people. "[The offer to] house 500 prisoners won't make any difference at all," he says. "The officers are too thinly-stretched, they won't be able to get off the wings [to the temporary cells] and give them any sort of meaningful exercise, showers or phone calls or, most importantly, answer alarm calls." (A spokesperson for the Prison Service said the temporary cells "will be monitored by staff, as normal".)

The rest of the UK's prison population is likely to be under lockdown for several weeks yet, prompting concerns about the possible effects. Already, there have been prison riots over coronavirus responses at prisons in the US, Colombia, Iran and Indonesia. But Elliot Murawski, a former prisoner, says there is a bigger issue than riots. Murawski, along with his partner Lisa Selby, runs the Instagram and Twitter accounts @bluebaglife, which detail conditions in UK prisons as well as addiction and mental health issues. He says he is more concerned about what will happen once people's sentences are up.

"People might be quick to say, 'Why should we care about the prisoners in this current crisis, everyone is struggling,' but actually… [if] you treat people a certain way... the majority of prisoners will be released from prison… If they're spending their whole sentence in these conditions, then, inevitably, they're going to carry those hostilities and resentments back out of the gate with them."

@MirrenGidda

This article first appeared in Liberty Investigates. Its version appeared here.

*Not his real name

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