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