June 2. Solitary confinement as a device for punishing and reforming prisoners was introduced in Britain in 1842, with the opening of Pentonville Prison. It was believed that if the prisoner was kept in isolation, visited only by the prison chaplain, he would meditate on his sinful life and over time re-build his moral being. It was recognised that the regime placed a dangerous stress on the mental health of the prisoners, who were subject to frequent visits by medical staff to monitor their condition. From the outset the regime was criticised for its inhumanity, most notably by Charles Dickens, but the State clung to the device, albeit in a weakened form, throughout the nineteenth century.
Solitary, or separate, confinement finally disappeared between the wars, but it has lately returned not as a deliberate penal policy, but as a by-product of the growing crisis in the prison system. After 1990, a ‘punitive turn’ in the political discourse led to a doubling of the UK prison population to the current level of 92,500. Following the financial crash of 2008-2009, the expanding numbers collided with a long-term retraction in public expenditure. Prisoners were locked in their cells because of infractions of the rules, or to protect them from other prisoners, or because there were insufficient staff to monitor them when they congregated with others.
On 30 May 2018, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons sent an ‘Urgent Notification’ to the Ministry of Justice on conditions in Exeter Prison. He was particularly concerned about the ‘designated segregation unit’ where ‘there was a special cell which was completely bare and contained no furniture, toilet or bed. Prison and regional managers had approved the use of this cell for those judged to be so vulnerable as to be in need of constant observation, and it had been so used 17 times in the previous six months. There was supposedly an inflatable bed available for use in this cell, but it could not be found by staff during the inspection, and inspectors saw video of a prisoner on constant watch being located in the cell without it.’ Other prisoners were discovered to be in self-imposed solitude: ‘We found prisoners isolating themselves in their cells,’ the inspectors reported of Birmingham prison, ‘refusing to emerge because of their fear of violence.’
Everyone with an interest in prison reform knew that there were only two solutions to the crisis. Either the State invested an unfeasible amount of money in new prisons and more officers, or it significantly reduced the prison population in order to let the existing staff do their jobs properly. Caught between their traditional commitment to law and order, and their continuing embrace of austerity, successive Conservative governments were unable to commit to either course of action.
Then came the coronavirus, and suddenly a pathway opened up. It would be possible to make a significant start on reducing prisoner numbers under the cover of the medical crisis. On April 4, just a fortnight after the lockdown began, Ministry of Justice said that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for the end of custody temporary release (ECTR) scheme, in addition to freeing pregnant women and mothers of babies. The government also committed to releasing vulnerable prisoners, of whom there are about 1,200, through compassionate release.
But, as so often in the current crisis, the target was missed, and by such a margin as to suggest that the Ministry of Justice had completely lost its nerve. By the end of May, seventy-nine prisoners had been released under the ECTR scheme, together with about twenty-two pregnant women and mothers of babies.
Faced with the contagion spreading throughout the packed prisons, the regime imposed draconian lockdown conditions. With social distancing impossible in the overcrowded buildings, solitary confinement returned for more than twenty-three hours a day and all prison visits were suspended. On its own terms it worked. Deaths in prisons have been lower per head of population than had been feared. To date, twenty-two prisoners and nine staff are known to have died of Covid-19. But the psychological suffering has been immense. Since lockdown conditions were introduced on 23 March, there have been nearly as many suicides as medical deaths. Five suicides were reported in the last week of May* (this compares with eighty over the whole of 2019, itself a figure which would have shocked the Victorians). As we debate the opening of schools, the Children’s Commissioner has complained that children in prisons are only being allowed out of their cells for less than an hour a day, with destructive consequences for their education.
Amidst the coronavirus crisis, there are visions of building a better world. The prisons represent an inexcusable missed opportunity.
*Guardian, 28 May 2020.