UK: lockdown report reveals HMP Maidstone inmates confined to cell for 23 hours a day with higher number of self-harm incidents

An inspection of a Kent prison during lockdown has revealed inmates have been confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and had no face-to-face contact with the outside world for at least 12 weeks.

The report has also highlighted a “self-inflicted death” at HMP Maidstone since the restrictions came into force. An inquest opening heard the inmate was found suspended, but the hearing is yet to confirm the full circumstances around how the prisoner died.

A short scrutiny visit took place at the category C men’s prison on Tuesday, June 16 to give a snapshot of how it has been responding to the pandemic.

Inspectors found staff and prisoners were becoming concerned about the effects of such a prolonged, restricted regime on their well-being.

Although prison officers had “adopted appropriate arrangements in line with national guidance to contain the spread of the virus”, chief inspector Peter Clarke said he was “disappointed and concerned” about some aspects of how the centre was being run.

According to the report, the number of recorded self-harm incidents was similar to preceding months but much higher than the same time last year, and there has been one “self-inflicted death”.

An inquest into the death of Petrut Cristea has opened, and assistant coroner Geoffrey Smith said the 26-year-old was found in his cell and taken to Maidstone Hospital where he died on Thursday, June 4.

An initial cause of death was given as suspension and the hearing has been adjourned until January 12.

The number of people receiving support for risk of suicide or self-harm was increasing at the time of the inspection, with help in place for the “most vulnerable and complex prisoners”.

However, there were no “systematic welfare checks” to identify any decline in inmate’s mood.

Prisoners were unlocked for no more than an hour each day and having visits removed was said to be negatively affecting them.

Inmates were only able to make phone calls while out of their cell, although they did get an additional £5 credit each week, with call costs also reduced.

Despite there being 14 spare mobiles, they were not used and video calling had not been made available.

However, work in the kitchen and recycling department was rotated across a different unit each day, giving as many prisoners as possible additional time out of their cell.

Some managers had considered additional physical education sessions so inmates had more time outside, but decided not to due to national guidelines.

Education packs and books were available but not many prisoners engaged with these resources.

Prisoners were “desperate to hear about restrictions being eased” but the governors were “unable to provide any reassurance”, as they “believed they had no autonomy to increase time out of cell.”

This was the the second visit to category C prisons since the pandemic began, with little changing since the first on Tuesday, May 5.

In addition, Maidstone’s foreign national population faced anxiety about their inmigration status.

Access to the Home Office and Citizens’ Advice Bureau was very limited and there was a lack of information for those who don’t speak English.

Only one person had been released under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme, so “it had proven ineffective in relieving population pressures”.

However, there was effective partnership work to deliver health care services and manage the response to Covid-19.

At the time of the inspection, only one inmate at the prison, which has a capacity of around 600, had tested positive for the virus. He was recovering following hospitalisation.

Cleaning schedules were delivered frequently and communal areas appeared generally clean and tidy, there were no PPE shortages, and inmates were able to shower daily with good access to clean clothes and bedding.

Patients who were vulnerable due to health conditions had been identified and seen by health care staff to talk about the risks associated with Covid-19.

However, the centre lacked a “suitable unit it could dedicate to shielding the few medically vulnerable prisoners”.

Consequently, one very elderly prisoner had lived on the segregation unit by his own consent for nearly three months.

Although he was coping well, there were no regular, recorded multidisciplinary reviews to ensure oversight of this decision.

New arrivals were separated from the rest of the population for 14 days, in line with Government guidance, but social distancing in general was “reinforced not consistently practised by prisoners or staff”.