Butterfly trapped behind prison bars

Continued prison lockdowns are ‘de facto solitary confinement’

Criminal justice experts have raised serious concerns about the “de facto solitary confinement” of Scottish prisoners over the last year, claiming that such levels of isolation are akin to torture and have resulted in distressed inmates.

They say that lockdowns in prisons to stop the spread of Covid-19 have seen prisoners kept in cells for 23 hours a day for months on end, with no in-person family visits since January and little or no access to education programmes. This prolonged isolation has had a “crushing” effect on many prisoners, they claim.

Academics from Glasgow University carried out research and said that through a combination of letters from prisoners, surveys within jails and focus groups with prisoners’ families, they had built-up a picture of “very isolated” and sometimes distressed prisoners. Though 15 per cent said their situation had improved, two thirds said it was worse.

Researchers found anecdotal evidence – reported by both prison staff and prisoners – of increased drug use by people struggling to cope.

Some prisoners told them they heard voices and suffered panic attacks, but reported that they struggled to access mental health support, which they said was restricted to emergencies during lockdown. Some expressed suicidal thoughts and there have been a small number of suicides recorded by the Scottish Prison Service.

The Howard League for Penal Reform Scotland has raised concerns about an anticipated rising prison population as court backlogs clear, and a lack of scrutiny around the rules on prison lockdowns which could continue until the end of September.

In response, the Scottish Prison Service says it has put in place a series of mitigations to address “undesirable” but necessary lockdowns and will be rolling out plans next week for when visits and education can be reinstated in jails. Only eight prisoners have died of Covid-19 across the prison estate.

The concerns were raised as Amnesty International launched a global report on 18 March about the effects of Covid-19 on prisoners. The human rights organisation claims that in many countries prisons have resorted to “excessive and abusive confinement” to stop the spread of the virus.

Report authors of Forgotten Behind Bars: Covid-19 and Prisons, warn that control measures have led to serious human rights violations in prisons around the world.

Though Scottish prisons weren’t explicitly highlighted in the report, Dr Sarah Armstrong and criminal justice colleagues at Glasgow University said that the concerns about the effects of lockdown raised were relevant.

Armstrong said the Scottish Prison Service’s Covid-19 strategy had been based entirely on infection rates and called for future work to include mental health or wellbeing “as part of a measurable goal of managing the pandemic”.

Claims made by authorities that those in prison “actually prefer lockdown because it means the environment is calmer with less bullying and fewer drugs circulating” were “flatly refuted” by the findings of their data, collected from nearly 100 prisoners by letters and surveys, she added.

“The vast majority who said things had got worse, gave examples of having to choose between showering, phoning family or speaking to others in their hall,” she said. “One person wrote about reading the same book three times in a row with the closure of library access.

“A young woman from an Asian country managed to convey that there were no materials in her language, which means she was shut out of TV, reading and other distractions. People like her are not going to be able to access the prison newsletters, which give information about Samaritans or contacting rights monitors.”

Armstrong claimed that the loss of “privileges” – like accessing facilities such as the prison dining room, gym and education suites, or doing prison jobs – has had a significant impact on many prisoners.

One elderly man in Barlinnie claimed that as exercise was often in the morning, starting in winter when it was still dark, he had often not left his cell at all for several days at a time.

He found the lack of activity very hard to deal with, reporting his Higher level education was replaced by “an activity pack with three coloured pencils”, board games provided couldn’t be played by anyone without a cellmate, and that there was a lack of books and films. He also claimed his request for health care was assessed as non-urgent and not addressed.

Armstrong added: “Some prisoners reported drug use is increasing as people try to find ways of coping. We have heard this anecdotally as well from prison staff. Others reported contemplating suicide,” she said.

Figures on the SPS website suggest five deaths by hanging or asphyxia and other four due to drug overdoses from January to September 2020. The cause of death in three cases was still to be determined. There were 12 suicides in prison in 2019.

The SPS insisted that healthcare continued to be fully accessible to prisoners, with additional mental health support offered via in-cell phones, allowing 24/7 access to the Samaritans.

Prisoners have now been living in intensively isolated environments for 12 months. 15 days of isolation is the UN definition of torture.

Dr Sarah Armstrong, Glasgow University

But Armstrong said: “As in other areas, many services have contracted sharply to accommodate only those in crisis. In the case of mental health concerns, unless these are of an especially intense or emergency nature, they are not being managed or even placed on the radar of prison staff. What might be low levels of anxiety and depression, without any support, can easily reach extreme levels.

She continued: “Prisoners have now been living in intensively isolated environments for 12 months. 15 days of isolation is the UN definition of torture.”

Emma Jardine, policy and public affairs adviser at Howard League Scotland, said prisoners had been let out of their cells for such short amounts of time in the last years that it “amounts to de facto solitary confinement”.

“Prison rules allowing this to continue for up to 18 months have recently been extended until the end of September, without Parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with public health, prison inspectors or human rights commissioners,” she added.

“Despite the implementation of a largely well-managed early release scheme, momentum to tackle serious prison overcrowding in Scotland has waned. As court backlogs clear and the prison population rises further, it’s unlikely prisons will be allowed to return to anything like the pre-pandemic normality that will be afforded to the wider community.”

Currently 7,376 people are in Scottish prisons,  about a quarter of whom are on remand.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) stressed that a range of supports had been put in place including self-help leaflets and audio files, mindfulness and relaxation exercises and in-cell workouts.

Prison Chaplains continued to provide pastoral, spiritual and faith-specific care, they added while £2.50 per prisoner was provided as a  “phone allowance” and TV rental fees suspended.

“Throughout the pandemic, there has been regular engagement with those in our care to ensure their voice is heard and that we keep them up to date with what is going on, and why,” the SPS said.

Tom Fox, director of corporate affairs, added: “There are concerns obviously, as the amount of time spent in cells is more than it would normally be. But given the circumstances both staff and prisoners have made a remarkable job of helping us manage this.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the wellbeing and human rights of prisons had remained “a priority” throught the pandemic.

“Independent and robust scrutiny and monitoring of conditions and treatment in our prisons has been maintained during the pandemic,” they added.

“Measures taken by SPS to restrict the regime have been necessary, proportionate and aligned to public health advice in order to support the safe operation of prisons and to protect the health and wellbeing of those who live and work in them from this highly transmissible variant. We operate within a human rights framework and the Scottish Government is in regular contact with human rights organisations.”

Header image thanks to iStock / GDArts

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