UK: Learning the Wrong Lessons from Pandemic Response Measures in Prisons

The situation in UK prisons has improved little since the easing of restrictions in the general community.   The vast majority of prisoners remain locked in cells for around 23 hours a day.  The most concerning development of all is the increasing trend for the government and prison service to rationalise the idea that more time in cell may be a good thing.

In his letter to Jo Farrar (Chief Executive of the Prison and Probation Service), Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust notes:

“A deeply disturbing narrative has emerged that reductions in recorded violence and self- harm due to the enforced confinement of almost all prisoners for 23 hours or more every day may be a useful lesson for regime design. That narrative is only possible because of the appalling condition of many prisons before the pandemic began, with violence and self-harm at levels that were unthinkable before staff numbers were savagely cut from 2012 onwards.

There is nothing normal, humane, decent or rehabilitative about keeping a human being confined to a 9ft by 6ft room for most of any day, still less for months and years on end. There could be no more wrongheaded a starting point for a serious discussion of prison reform.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons, published last month, states that even in late 2020 cells ‘were unlocked for only about 90 minutes a day’ and this short time out of cell has to include prisoners’ essential daily tasks (p. 35-36). The report notes:

At Erlestoke, some had to sacrifice time in the open air because their meals were served at the same time.

At Risley, prisoners sometimes had to choose between attending their health care appointment or having a shower.

At Swansea, prisoners did not have enough time to shower, clean their cells and make a telephone call.

This of course lead to prisoners who ‘felt drained and depleted, lacked hope for the future, and were despondent […] and had too little time out of cell to seek meaningful support from their peers or staff’ (p. 42).

We continue to be deeply concerned at the narrative that the pandemic makes this treatment ‘proportionate’ in any way.

The use of excessive cellular confinement in UK prisons predates the onset of covid-19 safety measures and both adults and children under the care of the UK prison system have been subjected to this cruel and inhuman treatment.

A recent Supreme Court hearing dismissed an appeal which considered whether the 55 day long solitary confinement of a 15 year old in Feltham YOI in 2017 was a violation of European Convention on Human Rights (read more here:

Similarly, the ongoing, long-term use of Close Supervision Centres within UK prisons has been flagged by Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur for torture, as ‘conditions of detention [which] amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and, therefore, are neither legitimate nor lawful’ ( Melzer highlights the case of Kevin Thakrar:

“For the past 11 years, he is being held alone in a cell for more than 22 hours a day, is not permitted to participate in regular prison activities, receives his food through a hatch and does not even have a privacy screen when using the toilet inside his cell.”

In short there is little sign of improvement in conditions relating to the pandemic, but even more disturbingly the government and prison service seem more intent than ever to go down the road of USA style mass incarceration in conditions of extreme lockdown.  Amnesty musty do all it can to highlight this human rights catastrophe.

If you would like to find out how you can support the campaign to end the use of this inhumane practice in the UK you can email

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