Inmates describe the conditions inside the UK’s prisons amid the pandemic, shedding light on the Criminal Justice System’s deepening crisis.

Inmates describe the conditions inside the UK’s prisons amid the pandemic, shedding light on the Criminal Justice System’s deepening crisis.

The pandemic has seen life in the UK suspended for almost 18 months now. The crisis has exposed and exacerbated deep flaws within society and the structures and systems that operate within it. One clear example of this is the strain placed on the country’s beleaguered Criminal Justice System, already at breaking point following a decade of cuts. 

A new report from Fair Trials, an international NGO focused on campaigning for a fair and equal criminal justice system, paints a harrowing picture of those trapped within the Criminal Justice System over the last 15 months. 

The report, which includes individual accounts of 23 people who are or have recently been held on remand, exposes a worsening mental health crisis within the prison system, while also detailing a worrying number of people who are pleading guilty, plan to do so, or know people who have plead guilty, to offences they did not commit in order to get out of extended pre-trial detention in the pandemic. Of those spoken to for the report across 19 prisons in the country, over half fit into this category. 

Length of remand, which is the practice of imprisoning those who are accused of a crime in the run up to their trial and should only be used in exceptional circumstances, is supposed to be limited by strict custody time limits set out in legislation. The report found that thousands of people are routinely seeing their time limit extended.

Many have been locked up for 23 hours a day in conditions that have been branded “inhumane”. Those spoken to report poor access to showering and exercise facilities, as well as extremely limited contact with loved ones. There are further reports of restricted access to healthcare, support or opportunities to learn. 

The crisis inside prisons comes as the backlog of cases waiting to be heard has skyrocketed, now numbering in the tens of thousands. Speaking on the report, Fair Trials Legal and Policy officer Griff Ferris said: “These harrowing first-hand accounts of life on remand during the pandemic show a broken criminal justice system, coercing guilty pleas from innocent people, inhumane prison conditions and a denial of basic human contact, and a serious mental health crisis among people held in prisons.”

Below are accounts collected by Fair Trials, published exclusively by Huck, that document the conditions inside the country’s prisons and lay out in explicit detail the growing crisis in the Criminal Justice System.

Michelle*

I have not been given a release date or trial date. I applied for bail because I am legally recognised as female and held in male Cat B prison [for prisoners for whom the very highest conditions of security are not necessary but for whom escape must be made very difficult]. The Magistrates granted conditional bail, with the condition of not to contact the male prisoner I threatened, after his campaign of abuses, harassment and victimisation at my cell door and damage to my clothing (all of which was proven in civil court who found in my favour). 

CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] opposed bail and so I’m remanded on these matters and living several doors away from this [prisoner who abused me] on the same wing. CPS opposed bail, using previous offences – all of which have been served in full – and argued that I would offend on bail. My solicitor argued that ironically, I have never offended on bail. I was charged with threats to kill.

This [prisoner who abused me] knows I’m on remand because of my reacting to him, and this has escalated the abuse. This abuse has only temporarily halted while this prisoner, who has a life-sentence, is self-isolating. 

I do not go out and exercise for fear of abuse from male prisoners. I am not allowed to mix with male prisoners as I’m legally recognised as female. 

The impact of my time in custody awaiting trial has been affecting my mental health. My solicitor has told the magistrates court that being held in a male prison is a clear breach of [my] human rights. 

Mariam*

My trial has been postponed several times, even before the pandemic, last October 2020 [trial] was suspended and set for October this year. I haven’t been able to apply for bail because I literally have no address or anywhere to go […] The bail officer said, ‘Do not hold high hopes’.

I thought about [pleading guilty] just once, because of the frustration this waiting time gives me. [But] I know what I’ve done and what I haven’t done, why would I do that? It’s against my principles. Although I’ve also met people here who sadly have done that, changing their pleas from innocent to guilty only because it will make everything quicker. 

The regime has changed so much since last year. At the moment we go out every day, in a good day, one hour, a not so good day, 40 to 45 minutes. That time’s for you to exercise, shower, clean your room… we currently have issues with the showers, only two out of six work properly […] There had been times due to Covid outbreaks within the wing we could only go out every other day and mostly, less than one hour. 

The prison is giving us £10 for pin credit and Purple visits [a video call app rolled out during Covid-19 specifically for prisoners in the UK] are working, nonetheless, in my case, last time I saw my mother was September 2020, as she doesn’t have good internet service. She lives abroad. 

I can say I’ve been suicidal, depressed, anxious… and I’ve lost weight, too. It is really hard to accept those realities in your life, and cope with them.

I am a 32-year-old woman and foreign national. Given my remand status I cannot apply for university courses either. I honestly don’t trust the justice system of this country. I feel I’m wasting time here, because what skills can I get from cleaning a toilet once a week? The prison is barely supporting us.

Stuart*

I have been on remand since September and I’m on the warned list [a list of backup cases that can be called if another trial cannot go ahead] for trial in April but being told that my case is considered not a priority case […] I’m just in limbo. 

The matter of getting legal consultations has been a nightmare, I had one legal visit, couldn’t hear most of it, you can’t talk properly and see evidence as you need to. I feel very unprepared for the case.

I am getting half an hour out a day to shower or exercise on alternative days i.e. Monday’s shower, Tuesday exercise, Wednesday shower, and so on. There is a phone to contact people but it is so expensive and there are no wages, as there is no work or education [available to inmates]. 

The impact has been exhausting, I have a little girl due in June and not knowing what is going on has affected my mental health immensely and it is getting worse. The stress on my pregnant wife and teenage kids already is terrible. I have even self-harmed, had no help from mental health services, no counselling can be facilitated, and I still have no clue as to when the trial will be and if solicitors are prepared the way I want them to be prepared. 

Keeley*

I’ve been on remand for 13 months now. My trial date is currently fixed for May 2021. I had two previous trial dates rescheduled: the first was August 2020, the second was November 2020. Each time the judge used the pandemic as the reason for extending my custody time limit. 

On the wing that I’m on, we get let out for showers once everyday. We often get 30 minutes on the exercise yard, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, when staff permit. On weekends, we only get 30 mins in the afternoon. They have replaced face-to-face visits with Purple visits, which is a 30 mins video call with family and friends. 

I’m only entitled to one per month, so that’s not convenient, considering my children don’t all live together. Being on 23-hours bang up [confined to a cell] is very isolating, so I tend to rely on speaking to my loved ones. I normally spend at least £30 each week on my pin credit which often runs out on Wednesdays.

The time I’ve been on remand has affected my mental state, as each time when I’m looking forward to getting it over and done with, I’m told that I’ll have to wait months to get my trial, so I can’t plan my future. My kids have not seen me in person in over one year and I can’t tell them when I’ll be able to see them, let alone hug them. My relationship with my partner broke down because of the stress relating to my case not being brought to trial. 

I haven’t been to the dentist in over one year, even though I’ve asked for an appointment. My eyesight is deteriorating due to not getting an appointment in the year that I’ve been here. I am in rent arrears due to my extended remand time. All of my benefits have stopped. I lost my babyfather and I couldn’t be there to comfort my kids in their time of grief. I’m in further debt because before coming to prison I was making regular payments. All that stopped when my benefits stopped. I haven’t been able to better myself in any way. 

The courts shouldn’t have the right to continuously extend custody time limits. By the time I get to trial in May, I’d have been on remand for 15 months. If I’m found not guilty, I don’t get help with any of the things I’ve lost since being on remand and all the pain, stress and emotional trauma that I’ve endured. 

Because I’m a foreign national, I believe that plays a part as to why I wasn’t given bail, even though I’m not illegally in this country. The not knowing is the worst part.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

These accounts have been edited for length and clarity.

Read the full report from Fair Trials here.

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics & Activism Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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