From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Time passes

Peter Clarke, HM Inspector of Prisons

October 24. Time is becoming an independent factor in the experience of coronavirus. 

In the early weeks, the reaction against a total lockdown was conditioned by the expectation that summer would witness a return to something like a normal life.  For a while that seemed to be the case as restrictions were lifted, the daily death rate fell to low double figures, and offices and schools opened.

Now it the ending is disappearing over the horizon.  There seems little prospect of any of the Government’s semi-privatised schemes ever working, nor is it likely that a vaccine will get on top of the pandemic until well into the New Year.  As Christmas is imperilled, prolonged anxiety and unending isolation are wearing away at the spirits.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prisons, which, as I have argued in earlier posts, have been exposed to destructive solitude on a scale not seen anywhere in civilian life.  Time has been the currency of the penal system in Britain since it began to move away from physical punishment in the early nineteenth century.  The gravity of a crime is measured in the years that must be served.

It was apparent from the beginning that locking prisoners up for twenty-three hours a day to protect them from infection was likely to cause serious harm to inmates who were rarely in good psychological condition at the outset. 

Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has just published his final report before retirement.  He draws attention to the consequences of the lockdown in prisons:

“Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor. Nineteen per cent of adult male prisoners told us that they were out of their cells for less than two hours on weekdays, including 32% in men’s local prisons. Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year?”*

As the months passed, with no early release of prisoners to reduce pressure within the system (unlike in France, where the prison population was swiftly reduced by 10,000), the effect worsened:

“All social visits had been suspended in March, and by the end of June this was beginning to cause frustration among prisoners… Time out of cell was still extremely restricted for nearly all prisoners, and with the almost complete lack of work, training or education, frustrations were beginning to build.”**

In subsequent interviews he challenged the prospect of such a regime continuing without prospect of amelioration:

“The question is: it is intended to keep people locked up for 23 days ad infinitum?  Or until the virus is eliminated?  That simply cannot be right.”***

Caught between an obdurate Prison Officers Association and an obtuse Ministry of Justice, it looks indeed as if the regime will continue until it explodes, or causes irreparable damage to inmates.

Daniel Defoe’s Due Preparations for the Plague covered the question of what to do with prisoners in such an outbreak.  His solution was straightforward:

“Seventhly. — That all criminals, felons, and murderers should be forthwith tried, and such as are not sentenced to die, should be immediately transported or let out on condition of going forty miles from the city, not to return on pain of death.”****

You can argue with his prescription, but at least he recognised that drastic action needed to be taken.

*  p. 15

**p. 18

***Reported in

****1903 edn., p. 17.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Dostoyevsky rules


August 5. In an addendum to the June 22 diary, I noted a further still-birth in a woman’s prison.  As ever in this rear-view country, a set of inquiries has been launched, but their findings have been pre-empted by a whistle-blower in the person of Tamsin Morris, a lawyer who previously managed the mother-and-baby unit at Styal Prison.

She revealed that four months before the event she had written to the local MP, the Mayor of Manchester, and the Ministry of Justice, raising concerns about conditions for pregnant women in prison.  Together with the charity Birth Companions, she had drawn attention to the failure to record the number of women in prisons who are pregnant, the unavailability of appropriate termination procedures, inadequate pregnancy testing, and inconsistent antenatal services.  Pregnancy tests were only offered on entry to the prison and could be declined by the prisoner.  Thereafter there were no further tests, and no national record of pregnant women prisoners. 

In the Styal case, no care was given until the prisoner unexpectedly went into labour.  It is possible that in this prison, and across the sector, some minor reforms will follow.  The question remains, as I argued in my entries for June 2 and June16, whether the coronavirus presents an unmissable opportunity to reform and essentially inhumane and destructive penal regime.  As the pandemic persists so also does one of its more unacceptable consequences, the imposition of widespread solitary confinement in prison cells as the only available means of preventing mass infection. 

We arrive at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century with, at best, a partially modernised version of the system that began to be constructed in 1842 with the opening of Pentonville.  There has been a long debate about the function of incarceration. Proponents of rehabilitative justice have largely been defeated by the advocates of retribution.*  Ever since the introduction of solitary confinement where the prisoner was supposed to repent and reform through a prolonged period of spiritual meditation, there has been scant evidence that rehabilitation works.  After nearly two centuries of inquiry and adjustments to the system, the recidivism rate in England and Wales (the proportion of prisoners committing crimes on release) stands at 50% after one year.  There is ample evidence not only that prison does not reform, but that the experience of incarceration is destructive of mental and physical health, more especially with the renewed use of solitary confinement.

The prisons should be front and centre of public policy in this pandemic for two reasons.  The first is that of opportunity.  Dominic Cummings promises that a ‘hard rain’ is going to fall on the civil service.  Were he to focus his iconoclastic tendencies on the Ministry of Justice, then history would indeed go round a corner.  There are European examples of how to do it better.  In Norway a much smaller proportion of the offending population is housed in civilised, small-scale accommodation where the prisoners are treated with a basic respect.  The result is a vast reduction in both public expenditure and the recidivism rate, which stands at 20% over two years.  In Britain, perhaps ten per cent of the current prison population needs to be behind bars to protect the rest of society.  Outside, the plethora of electronic surveillance devices, which so alarm privacy campaigners, could be applied to the task of monitoring the behaviour of potential repeat offenders.

The second reason is more basic.  Dostoyevsky’s much travelled dictum still applies: ‘A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.’

So also will be the verdict on how we have learned from this crisis.

*Victor Bailey, The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970 (London: Routledge, 2019).

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Build, Build, Imprison …

July 9.  Here’s a happy tweet from the Ministry of Justice: ‘We are building 4 new prisons to: Improve rehabilitation.  Help local economies.  Support construction industry to invest & innovate.  Part of our £2.5bn plan to create 10k additional prison places.  Delivering modern prisons & keeping the public safe’ (thanks to my colleague Ros Crone, for this). 

Each line has a helpful little illustration.  The one for the construction industry has a crane and jib which at first sight looks just like a gallows.  Next time perhaps.

The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the last twenty-five years.  According to the figures for 3rd July, the current population of 79,522 is just over two thousand less than the ‘Usable Operational Capacity’.* The press release accompanying the tweet stresses that the new cells will be an ‘addition’ to the present stock, presumably, taking into account the need to replace prisons no longer fit for purpose.  They will be on top of already planned new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which are to provide 3,360 places by 2023.  The announcement reflects an expectation that prison numbers will expand still further in the coming years.

Last February, the then Justice Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced a policy of abolishing custodial sentences of fewer than six months.  But he took the wrong view of Brexit, lost his Cabinet post, was thrown out of the Conservative Party and is now out of Parliament.  His junior minister in charge of prisons, Rory Stewart, stated that ‘We should be deeply ashamed as a society if people are living in filthy, rat-infested conditions with smashed-up windows, with high rates of suicide and violence.’**  He was quickly promoted to a Cabinet post at the Department for International Development, since abolished (do keep up!), before he was himself abolished, following Gauke’s trajectory out of office and out of Parliament because of his opposition to Brexit (and to Johnson personally).

As noted in my diary entry for June 2, the Ministry of Justice failed to implement an early undertaking to make an emergency reduction of 4,000 in a prison population threatened by mass infection in confined spaces.  Now cause and effect has been reversed.  The response to the virus demands growth not contraction.  The overriding need is to get the economy moving. The MoJ’s press release explains the broader purpose of the announced expansion: ‘Thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding prisons during construction and once they have opened.  This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus epidemic.’  

This is the new mantra of ‘build, build, build’ given form.  There seems no good reason why the Government should stop at 10,000.  We need to be world class at something, and setting aside the United States we are already well ahead of advanced countries in the proportion of the population in prison.   Each new prison takes undesirables off the streets, cures unemployment, boosts the private sector (only one of the new prisons is certain to be run by the state).  What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee.***  It has just demanded that the government ‘should end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low risk… The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.’   It further called for the ‘early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children.’

The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

*Ministry of Justice, Official Statistics, Prison population figures: 2020.  July 3, 2020.

**Cited in House of Commons Justice Committee, Prison population 2022: planning for the future


from David Vincent: Solitary confinement

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.