Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: What Happens to Prisoners in a Pandemic

12th February 2021

This thematic review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), What happens to prisoners in a pandemic? explores the effects of the restrictions introduced in prisons in England and Wales during 2020 in response to COVID-19.

HMIP found that the most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Interviews found that people held in standard residential units had typically spent more than 22 hours in their cells since March 2020.

The review ultimately finds that what people in prison had to say about their experiences calls into question whether the right balance was achieved between managing the risk posed by COVID-19 and providing them with enough meaningful activity, engagement, and time out of cell.

“It’s being imprisoned while you’re in prison.”

Key Findings

The initial response to COVID-19 was largely well managed

The report found that prisoners thought that the initial response to protect them from Covid-19 was largely well managed. They recognised the seriousness of the situation and largely understood why such severe restrictions had been placed on their time out of cell and activities. This was partly because they understood that the community was subject to similar restrictions. However, when restrictions in the community were eased, the amount of time locked in cells no longer felt legitimate or fair.

Day-to-day safety measures to protect prisoners from COVID-19 were inadequate

The report found that prisoners felt very strongly that staff were the main transmission risk of Covid-19 within the prison as they came into work from the community each day. Prisoners believed that staff should have been required to wear face coverings from the outset, rather than from October 2020, seven months after the restrictions started. Adult prisoners were each issued with two washable face coverings in October 2020, but they felt that this had taken too long.

Prisoners did not have enough information about protective measures to feel safe

Prisoners sometimes wanted to know more about the prison’s decision-making to help them understand the level of threat. For example, how many prisoners were testing positive for Covid-19 each week and whether staff were being tested regularly. They were also anxious about the integrity of the quarantining process for new arrivals from court and transfers from other prisons.

Violence, bullying and intimidation had not gone away, but manifested differently

Although prisoners said they saw fewer incidents of violence, prisoners continued to feel unsafe. For example, women had started to see more tension, anger and behavioural problems emerge as restrictions continued. The level of boredom and the empty days had led to some women scrutinising the behaviour of others and picking on them as a way of passing the time. Men described grudges brewing behind their cell doors. When prisoners were eventually unlocked for short periods, they said violence would often occur out of sight of staff, in shower areas or in cells.

Drug use and debts were still a problem

Some prisoners had turned to using drugs as a means of managing the isolation and boredom caused by long periods of time locked behind their cell doors. They noted that the reduced availability of drugs since March 2020 had driven up demand and increased the prices, which in turn increased the risk of prisoners getting into greater debt.

It was difficult to complete essential daily chores

Time spent out of cells for adult prisoners was often rushed and stressful. In most adult prisons, the 90 minutes in which prisoners were unlocked was divided into two sessions. One was dedicated to time in the open air on the exercise yard. This meant that adult prisoners often only had 45 minutes to shower, clean their cells, submit meal choices, place orders from the prison shop, post complaints and send requests for help to prison departments and, for some, use the communal phones. There was often not enough time to get all these jobs done.

Accessing health care was difficult

Prisoners tend to have a greater need for health care services than the general population. During the pandemic, however, many health care services were reduced to emergency access only, with dentists and opticians being unavailable for months. Prisoners said they could not easily get health care appointments, faced long waits for advice and treatment and struggled to make sure officers could escort them to the health care centre.

Initial loss of contact with family and friends was hard

Strengthening relationships with their family and friends can support prisoners’ successful release back into the community and reduce the likelihood of further offending. All face-to-face prison visits were stopped in March 2020 without exception until early July, when they resumed under strict guidelines.

Video calling was a welcome addition

Overall, prisoners were pleased to have this form of contact and those whose families lived a long way from the prison found video calls to be a particular asset. However, the entitlement to just one 30-minute call a month at some prisons was not sufficient. Prisoners reported frequent technical problems, such as the picture repeatedly freezing, which caused considerable frustration. However, despite these issues, prisoners were very keen that prisons should retain video calling once the pandemic subsided.

Getting support from other prisoners and staff was more difficult

Covid-19 restrictions had limited the support that prisoners received from the point of arrival onwards. Prisoners arriving during the pandemic, particularly those who had not been to custody before, felt shocked and confused. Induction processes had been limited severely and prisoners often relied on other prisoners for information about daily life. However, the COVID-19 restrictions also significantly affected prisoners’ ability to access support from their peers on a day-to-day basis.

The benefits of work, training and education were missed

Adult prisoners expressed a clear desire to return to purposeful activity. They missed a full daily routine which included work and education, because this made them feel useful and gave them purpose. Adult prisoners were typically dissatisfied with the in-cell education packs which had been provided after classroom attendance ended. They described these packs as simplistic, repetitive, unengaging and unchallenging.

Release planning was limited

Since the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions, resettlement staff had mostly stopped coming into prisons or seeing prisoners face-to-face. The lack of support left prisoners feeling ill-prepared, vulnerable and worried about the practicalities of being released.

There was too little mental health support at a time of heightened anxiety

The prevalence of mental health problems among the prison population before the pandemic was well-documented. The effect of COVID-19 restrictions on this population had therefore been significant. Some prisoners felt their lives were going to waste and they often felt lonely and unsupported. Others had been diagnosed with clinical depression and were prescribed antidepressant medication during the pandemic.


Efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 were initially successful but have come at a heavy cost to prisoners. Most prisoners had spent over 90% of their days behind their cell doors since March 2020. The restrictions on their daily lives had started to feel unfair and punitive. Contact with family and friends had been limited by the pandemic, although, in-cell phones and video-calling had proven to be positive developments and crucial lifelines for prisoners. prisoners were chronically bored with work and training facilities stopped and some were using unhealthy coping strategies to manage the prolonged periods of being locked in their cells. The long-term consequences of such prolonged and severe restrictions in prison could be profound for prisoners and the communities to which they ultimately return.

Read What happens to prisons in a pandemic? and listen to recordings of quotes from prisoners on the HMIP website.

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