15th September 2020

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has once again called for the restrictions imposed on prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic to be made permanent in an attempt to maintain ‘stability and control’. Writing for the Association’s magazine, Gatelodge, National Chairman Mark Fairhurst urged the criminal justice sector to ‘learn lessons from this period [of lockdown] and… ensure that we restrict prisoner numbers, particularly during unlock… to ensure we maintain that stability and control that we have regained.’

The prison estate has been in strict lockdown since March: most prisoners have been confined to their cells for at least 23 hours a day and have lost out on education, visits and association time – all in order to limit the spread of coronavirus among prisoners and staff. But after first praising these measures as a ‘sensible’ means to protect its front-line staff, the POA are now appealing for the introduction of long-term limitations on association time, even suggesting it could be ‘scrapped for good’.

This is not the first time that the benefits of a restricted regime across the prison estate have made the headlines. Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer claimed that some children and male adults in prison “feel an element of safety in not being exposed to association and the bravado.” Robert Buckland QC MP also suggested that the decline in self-harm across the male estate during the first three months of lockdown could be due to some men “finding it actually a slightly easier regime in the sense that they are more worried about contact with other prisoners and find that a difficult aspect of prison life.” But is this a convenient reading?

Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive of Pact, stands in opposition to suggestions that the lockdown regime is benefitting prisoners: “There is a dangerous narrative right now that suggests that prisoners like this lockdown. We know that is not the case. Locking people up for 23 hours a day is taking a serious toll on the mental health of many men and women in prison, and we know of lots of instances where people are really struggling. It is understandable that in those establishments which have suffered over-crowding and under-staffing, and as a consequence have had violence and disorder, that some prison staff might look to continued lockdown as relief from the constant pressures. But the answer cannot be to sacrifice prisoners' mental health and chances of rehabilitation.

Thanks to the lockdown, the decision to stop visits and the strategy to ‘compartmentalise’ and shield vulnerable prisoners, the evidence strongly suggests that the number of deaths [from COVID-19] has been a tiny fraction of what would have happened if regimes had been allowed to continue as usual. But now that the virus is under control in most establishments, it’s crucial to return to a full rehabilitative regime as soon as is safely possible. We need to learn the right lessons from lockdown.”

Have your say

We know that lockdown has been incredibly difficult for prisoners and their loved ones. We know that this news will be upsetting and frustrating for many people. We know this because you have taken the time to tell us – and we understand that the most important thing for us to do is to listen. Now, we want to hear from you again.

We want to hear what prisoners’ families and loved ones think about the lockdown measures and the call for association time to be limited. We want our position to be shaped by an understanding of what you think and how you feel. 

You may have seen that on 30th September we will be hosting our first-ever online AGM and Conference, with guest speaker Dr Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service. 

If you would like to ask Dr Farrar a question on this subject, or share your thoughts, email us with your comments on [email protected], and your question may be shortlisted and asked during our event. Please note, we may also use your response in our publications, letters to officials and to raise awareness of the experiences of prisoners’ families. Any contributions we do use will be anonymised. There will not be any live questions during the event, so do submit your questions beforehand to be in with a chance of being shortlisted.

What next?