06:00, October 08 105 0 theguardian.com

2020-10-08 06:00:07
As a prison officer, I'm afraid of what Covid restrictions are doing to inmates

I do love my job. It’s always been challenging and stressful, but coronavirus has made it five times worse. The restrictions on prisoners’ movement have been very difficult. The regime for prisoners has been stripped back: since March, each has had only 10 minutes to shower and 30 minutes to exercise every day.

At first, when the whole country was in lockdown, most prisoners seemed willing to accept this regime, as they could see what was happening in the world outside through their TVs. But as lockdown restrictions have lifted, the regime in prison has remained largely unchanged. We’ve had men locked up for more than 23 hours a day in hot, poorly ventilated cells.

Living in such restrictive conditions has contributed to higher rates of self-harm and suicides among prisoners. It’s hard for us officers to see this: we’re not heartless. During the worst bits of the lockdown, we were saying, “It’s not fair” and “It doesn’t feel right”. I didn’t like seeing the prisoners suffer. Inhumanity doesn’t go anywhere near it: my pets get treated better than these men. The stresses of being locked up for so long are showing. Since prisoners were allowed 30 minutes to mingle, we’ve experienced a massive jump in staff assaults and prisoner-on-prisoner violence.

Prisons aren’t spacious. They’re cramped places with overcrowded cells. During the pandemic, neither prisoners nor officers have been allowed to wear masks. This makes sense for security reasons, but if any officer was to come to work with an asymptomatic case of coronavirus, they could risk spreading it to hundreds of people.

During the initial months of the pandemic I was placed on the suspected Covid wing. I had to move a prisoner who had symptoms and I was given just a bin liner and ski goggles that had been sitting in a bucket of disinfectant. It’s got better since then: we have visors, and an increased number of cleaners. Still, the conditions are increasingly taking a toll on the prisoners.

One prisoner I know was previously working in the restaurant. He’s used to getting up early – his way of coping with being here – but the restaurant has been closed during the pandemic, and only a few weeks into lockdown I could already see the black in his eyes: he was really, really bored. It’s the guys who work that you can see the most difference in.

The overtime scheme, which allowed for a near doubling of staff on duty from March at my prison, stopped in June and we went back to the old staff numbers – six officers to a wing of 180 prisoners. Running around all day locking people up has been hard, and compliance is tested on a daily basis. It’s emotionally draining, and we find ourselves in a state of limbo: everyone knows we need more staff to run a heavily restricted regime. But you’re just expected to get on with tough times, as that’s your job already.

While the government has taken some steps to appease prisoners, such as giving them £5 free phone credit and an extra meal a day – mainly crisps and snacks – this has done little to make up for the ban on visits between March and the end of August. Nothing can replace the hugs and kisses they would get from family members and friends.

Even now, with some visits resuming, there are more than 1,000 men in our prison and only a handful can get a socially distanced one-hour family visit on four days of the week. It will take months for everyone to see their families. We have video calls too, which have helped a bit, but we often don’t have the staff to facilitate them, as an officer has to be in the room, and many have been cancelled.

We are all afraid of what this second wave will mean for prisons and prisoners. We fear that prisoners won’t be able to cope with another six months of spending 23 hours behind their cell doors. They’ve put up with this for six months already, but they’re getting tired of it now. They are distressed.

  • The writer is a prison officer with three years’ experience. As told to Mattha Busby