When 76-year-old Harry Salt entered Littlehey Prison in November, his family believed he had been handed a death sentence.
Salt was convicted of a historic sexual abuse case last year, and sentenced to 18 years. He is deaf, and suffers from skin cancer so severe that he can’t go outside without wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
When Covid-19 gripped Britain in March, his family feared the worst. “We thought, oh my god, it’s going to sweep through there like bushfire,” Salt’s daughter – Jasmine – said.
The government agreed. Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, told a parliamentary committee in March that prisons in England and Wales – many of them crowded and crumbling – were facing “a huge challenge”.
A number of prisoners, he said, “class as vulnerable”. About 1,800 would be shielding if they were in the community, and many – like Salt – had underlying health conditions. “This cohort,” Buckland said, “tends to have poorer health than the rest of the population.”
Prisons have so far been able to avoid the explosive outbreaks of Covid-19 that were feared in the first weeks of the pandemic. Just 540 prisoners or children have tested positive across 86 prisons up to 7 August and, according to Ministry of Justice data, 44 of those have died.
Harry Salt is not one of them. Nonetheless the impact of coronavirus, and the measures implemented to contain it in prisons, has been acute – not only for Harry, but for his family too.
The shock of Harry’s conviction caused Barbara – his wife of 50 years – to have a breakdown, and the stress caused her to lose two stone in four months. When coronavirus hit, her “biggest fear” was Harry becoming sick.
But Barbara also feared that lockdown – with many prisoners confined to their cells for 23 hours each day – might make Harry “go crazy”. “I was worried about his mental health,” she explained, “and our mental health as well.”
That fear was shared by the families of a number of inmates who, in a series of interviews, provided an insight into how pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated a mental health crisis in this country’s prisons – and in the homes that prisoners leave behind.
Even before Covid-19, authorities warned of a burgeoning mental health catastrophe in prisons across England and Wales, with overcrowding making access to care a particular issue.
On a visit to HMP Wandsworth last year, one inmate approached a psychiatrist, frantically asking which department he was attached to.
“Mental health,” the psychiatrist replied. The prisoner, a stocky man in his late thirties with cropped black hair and tattoos climbing up one side of his neck, grew animated. “I need mental health,” he said. “Look!”
He raised his left arm and showed the psychiatrist a series of cuts on the underside of his forearm. They were dripping with blood and clearly fresh. “I need to see a nurse,” he repeated, again gesturing at his arm, adding that he had wet himself during the night.
The psychiatrist was non-plussed, saying a nurse would be over soon and gesturing to keep walking.“Some people go looking for help,” he shrugged when we were out of earshot.
There are currently close to 80,000 people in prisons and young offenders institutes across England and Wales. By the Ministry of Justice’s own estimations, the prison estate should not hold more than around 74,000 people.
In 2017-18, 81 of the 120 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, and almost a quarter of the prison population were living in overcrowded accommodation – meaning that inmates must double up in cells designed for one. Meanwhile the number of frontline prison staff was cut by 26 per cent between 2010 and 2017.
With so many people in prison requiring care, and so few staff on hand to administer it, inmates are slipping through the cracks. According to the Association for Members of Independent Boards, inmates at HMP Holme House, near Middlesborough, can be forced to wait as long as 12 weeks to see a GP.
A parliamentary report, published in 2018, found that, when staff are available, their response to medical problems can be inadequate or uncaring.
One prison officer who works at Wandsworth, and wished to remain anonymous, said that the majority of her colleagues are caring and compassionate, but a small number are “just c*nts”. It’s not uncommon, she said, to hear fellow officers describe prisoners who have tried and failed to hang themselves as “bad swingers”.
‘I just think he’ll crack’
Coronavirus has not helped. A review of prisoners’ experiences during Covid-19, which surveyed 200 prisoners across 55 prisons, found that lockdown restrictions were “having a negative impact on many prisoners’ mental health and well being.”
Prisoners described lockdown as a “rough time” and spoke of self-harming due to “stress and and fear that the virus will spread”. One, in a single cell, said they were “talking to walls at the moment, which is affecting my mental health.”
In interviews, families said that by confining inmates to their cells for as much as 23-and-a-half hours at a time, prisons were inflaming the already fragile mental health of their inmates.
“I can tell by his voice that he’s feeling depressed and very anxious,” Julie Eastwood, whose husband – 66-year-old Terry – is in Lancashire’s HMP Wymott, said.
Restrictions were recently eased to allow prisoners up to an hour out of their cells each day – but socialising is still very limited. Prisoners aren’t allowed to swap books anymore, so many have little entertainment inside their cells.
“They can go and meet people on another wing, but if Terry goes to that then he can’t get a phone call,” Julie explained. “So he prefers the phone call. I told him he needs interaction with other people, and that I can miss a call for one day, but he said no and told me he needs to call me.”
Linda Kemp’s son, James, is serving time in Risley Prison, in Warrington. “I know his mood has gone very low, he’s getting depressed with it. I can’t explain how it must make him feel,” she said.
“He’s in a dingy cell on his own because he’s in a wheelchair. He’s got a window that he can see out of, but there’s times when he can’t even get on the phone. He was very upset last week and he had to go and see the padre, and I was really worried about him becoming suicidal.”
Despite prison officers being some of the only people leaving the prison estate and returning, a number of inmates said they weren’t face coverings when interacting with locked down prisoners.
“It’s only the nursing staff that are wearing masks,” Julie Eastwood said. “None of the prison officers at Wymott have ever worn masks or PPE, which I found quite alarming. Initially there were only certain officers that were allowed on Terence’s wing at the start of lockdown. Well, that’s not the case now.”
Jean Clements, whose son Dean is in prison on the Isle of Wight, added that prison officers weren’t “wearing masks or anything like that”.
When prisoners are let out of their cells, social distancing tends to evaporate.
“They are let out into this tiny little yard,” Jean said. “They’re all next to each other, all the inmates. There’s no hand sanitiser. Because there’s no toilets in the cells, people throw their buckets of urine and everything out into this yard. No toilets, no washing, no shower, no sink, nothing.”
“Preventing the spread of coronavirus is vital, but this does not mean prisoners must be locked up in isolation all day,” Lyn Brown – Labour’s Shadow Minister for Prisons and Probation – said. “Stopping their access to social contact and rehabilitation increases the chances of them re-offending on release.”
As for Harry Salt, “his spirits are wavering,” his daughter Jasmine said. “He’s not great. He puts on a stiff upper lip. But you can hear it in his voice, when you say goodbye and stuff, he’s close to tears. We’ve had to cut conversations short because of emotions.”
Salt’s isolation is exacerbated by his deafness. He has a TV in his cell, but only two channels have subtitles. “We just have one-way phone conversations with Dad. He talks, we listen,” Jasmine said.
“He’s broken down a few times while he’s been in there, and he’s not a man to show his feelings, it’s not the manly thing to do,” Barbara – Harry’s wife – said. “He’s holding all that in, and I just think he’ll crack at some point.”
‘How long is soon?’
When the pandemic was approaching its peak, Buckland said early releases would be considered for some non-violent offenders, to “reduce the virus’ impact on the prison estate”.
But only 275 prisoners have been released since April – when the scheme had to be suspended after six men were freed by mistake – leaving many families with no means of staying in touch with incarcerated loved ones.
“The government designed an early release scheme that raised expectations and consumed valuable staff resources, but it never had any serious intention of releasing more than a handful of people,” according to Mark Day, Head of Communications and Policy at the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), a charity.
That failure, he said, “has contributed to the prolonged and extreme restrictions that prisoners and their families have had to endure in order to contain Covid-19 – and the psychological harm that is increasingly in evidence.”
Visits have since resumed, but with strict social distancing measures in place and restrictions on who can attend. But, from March until the end of July, many families had to rely on a sporadic phone call to check in on a prisoner’s wellbeing.
“Nothing has been forthcoming to families about the lockdown situation or visitation rights, there’s been no communication to families at all,” Jasmine said. “Any communication has come from my father, and he gets a weekly update – something like ‘you’re locked down for another three weeks’.”
“We haven’t had anybody call us and tell us anything,” Barbara Salt added. “Harry isn’t told much either. They’re told what day a visit might happen, but not a time slot until the actual day. You only get messages second-hand.”
Julie Eastwood hasn’t seen her husband since February. “The prison sent a photograph of him with a rainbow sticker on it saying ‘I’m fine, see you soon’. What does that mean? How long is soon?
“He’s HIV positive, so his immune system is compromised anyway,” she added. “If he was to just catch a cold, that’d be frightening. I live with bated breath every day.”
When visits have resumed, families have often found them inadequate – once a month for two people, who must be from the same household.
“I’ve got a single son who has no transport, and he’s not able to come with me,” Barbara said. “Unless we falsify his address, he’s not going to see his father. It seems as though nobody is taking seriously the seriousness of the effect this is having on us with regard to our mood swings, our sleep.”
When she did visit, Barbara had to wear a mask. But Harry lipreads, making it extremely hard for the couple to communicate. “We had to take it in turns, my other son James and I. If I took off my mask to speak to Harry, then James had to put his on.”
The family weren’t able to touch each other either. “No hugs, no nothing. Harry is such a tactile person, just a brief hug would have helped. Anything,” Barbara said, tearfully. “We couldn’t hold hands, nothing.”
Too many prisoners, not enough space
Officials insist that every decision they have made has been based on public health advice, and that the restrictions imposed on the prison estate simply mirrored what was going on in the community.
PPE is reportedly provided to all staff, but it is unclear if they’re mandated to wear it. “Our hard work has helped save lives, and we have prioritised prisoners’ mental health by making sure they have the practical and emotional support they need,” a Prison Service spokesman said.
The mental health of prisoners’ families does not seem to have earned the same amount of attention, and many admitted to feeling abandoned when the pandemic hit and communication waned.
“I do have dark moments,” Julie Eastwood said. “We are very isolated. I’ve only got my son – my best friend and my sister live in Manchester, and I haven’t been able to see them because of lockdown. We do feel the impact of that.”
Barbara Salt agreed. “It is very difficult,” she said. “It’s the day-to-day that we miss with Harry. When things are tough we have to sound happy, but we’re not. I’ve never been in this position before.”
For critics, the government is squarely to blame. “From its accidental release of the wrong prisoners in its bungled early release scheme, to its failure to address mental health concerns, the Ministry of Justice’s response to this pandemic has too often been characterised by incompetence,” Brown, the Labour frontbencher, said.
As work begins to clear the vast backlog of court cases put on hold by the pandemic, the numbers of people entering the prison estate look set to increase further – potentially making it more difficult to stem any outbreak that hits.
“The government has wilfully set its face against the safe reduction in prison numbers which would allow a more flexible and humane response,” Day, of the PRT, said. “We face the prospect of a rise in infections during the autumn, and prisons have been left facing the same fundamental problem as when the pandemic first took hold.
“There are too many prisoners for the space available – and it will be prisoners and their families who pay the price of that failure to plan ahead.”