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Prisoners still being locked up for 23 hours a day despite record self-harm

Prisoners are spending long hours in overcrowded cells without any rehabilitation activities, damning new reports warn

Adam Bychawski
20 February 2023, 5.19pm

Many prisoners in England are being confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Hundreds of prisoners in England are still being confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, despite warnings over rising self-harm rates, new reports reveal.

Many prisoners are also being forced to share prison cells designed for one person – without any windows – and are allowed out for as little as an hour each day.

Prisoners should have at least ten hours out of their cells for their mental well-being and to support their rehabilitation, according to the government’s chief inspector of prisons.

But a series of new reports from the inspectorate has revealed that institutions are failing to meet these standards – effectively placing prisoners in solitary confinement.

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At one prison, HMP Exeter in Devon, inspectors found more than 70% of prisoners were spending only two and half hours out of their cell each day.

Inspectors found that the prisons’ cells were in poor condition, with many having exposed electric wires and glass missing from their windows. At the time of the inspection in November, 85% of the prisoners were sharing cells designed for one.

Almost a third of prisoners in HMP Bullingdon were being held in cramped and overcrowded accommodation

Prisoners told inspectors they were desperate to get out of their cells and do something with their time, but the report found that the education offered to them was “not appropriate”.

There have been ten self-inflicted deaths and 626 incidents of self-harm recorded at HMP Exeter in the past 12 months, one of the highest rates in England.

Across England and Wales’s prison population as a whole, rates of self-harm increased in 2022. The latest available statistics show there were 54,761 reported incidents of self-harm (a rate of 687 per 1,000 prisoners) in the 12 months to September 2022.

While the rate of prisoners self-harming slightly decreased from its record high in 2020, it remains 2.5 times higher than in 2012.

Enforced isolation

During the coronavirus pandemic, prisons drastically reduced the amount of time inmates were allowed out of their cells to reduce the spread of the virus. But the practice has continued despite the lifting of restrictions.

In July last year, the chief inspector of prisons, Charles Taylor, warned that inmates were still being locked up for lengthy periods of time and said there would be a “price to pay” for the lack of “purposeful” activity.

At the time, Taylor said the most disheartening inspections were at prisons with large proportions of young men.

“Unless these men are given the support that they need, there is the potential that they will lead long lives of criminality – creating victims, disrupting their communities and placing a huge burden on the state,” he wrote.

Seven months on, there is little evidence that his warnings have been heeded.

At HMP Bullingdon in Oxfordshire, which houses 1,000 people, inspectors found 40% of prisoners were being let out of their cells for less than two hours a day. Almost a third of prisoners – approximately 300 – were also being held in cramped and overcrowded accommodation.

Some prisoners with access to work or learning opportunities were able to spend 7.5 hours a day out of their cell. But the prison had not provided any activity to a large number of prisoners, resulting in them only leaving their cell for an hour each day.

At HMP Forest Bank in Salford, inspectors similarly found that a third (486) of the total prison population (1,460) had not been allocated an activity and were spending only two to three hours a day outside their cells.

And an inspection of west Yorkshire’s HMP Wakefield revealed that around half of the 750 prisoners housed there are locked up during the working day.

The Prison Reform Trust warned that the practice would have a detrimental effect on the rehabilitation and mental health of prisoners.

“While life outside prisons has largely returned to normal after the pandemic, in prisons chronic staffing shortages mean that daily life for many thousands is still enforced isolation and idleness.

“That undermines everything prisons are supposed to be achieving, including the protection of the public through rehabilitation,” Peter Dawson, the charity’s director, told openDemoc

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