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Vulnerable prisoners spend weekends suffering behind close doors
HM Inspectorate of Prisons finds vulnerable prisoners spend weekends suffering behind close doors.

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Weekends in prison

Today’s (5 April 2023) report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation into weekends in prison says that purposeful activity in prisons – that is access to education, employment, exercise or time out of cell to take part in meaningful activity – has never been as bad as it is now, with prisons continuing to fail to return to the pre-pandemic regimes which supported the rehabilitation and wellbeing of prisoners.

The inspectors found that the high levels of lock-up reported during the week continue in the weekend and, in most cases, were much worse. 

Locked up for 21 hours a day

Inspectors visiting 11 prisons on Saturdays or Sundays found that most prisoners were spending at least 21 hours a day locked in their cells at the weekend. In one jail, prisoners were not unlocked at all for one of the two days except to collect their meals. Of more than 6,000 prisoners surveyed in 2022–23, 60% of men said that they spent less than two hours out of their cell on a typical Saturday or Sunday. This was more than double the proportion in the year before the pandemic (28%). The effect on women in prison was even starker; they were now four times more likely to say that they received less than two hours out of their cells at weekends .

Libraries were closed at weekends, and many prisoners had little to no time at all in the fresh air and could not even have a shower. Even when prisoners were unlocked for a period of association, recreational equipment was broken and out of use, and there were too few activities to engage prisoners constructively.

Combined with the severely limited time out of cell on weekdays, prisoners told us that their mental health and well-being was affected. For prisoners who were struggling, there were few opportunities to get the attention of a member of staff without pressing their emergency cell call bell.

The infographic below shows that regimes have made almost no progress in getting back to how they were before the pandemic.

Differences in regimes

Inspectors found that women prisoners experienced the most disparity between time unlocked on weekdays and weekends; two-thirds were unlocked for less than two hours on Saturdays and Sundays compared with 36% on a typical weekday.

They also found that the amount of time men spent locked up varied according to the type of prison. In local prisons, our survey found three-quarters were unlocked for less than two hours a day, compared with 54% in trainer prisons. Those in open prisons had considerably more time out of their cell, and prisoners in high secure establishments also spent less of their weekend locked up.

Staffing problems

Leaders told inspectors that chronic staffing shortages meant that they could not run a regime with more time out of cell at weekends. In addition, already limited regimes were frequently curtailed even further by acute and unpredictable staff shortages.

Of concern, in one prison inspectors were told of prison officers working long shifts – some in excess of 24 hours without an adequate break – because there were insufficient staff. After working all day in the prison, staff had volunteered to also cover the overnight watch for prisoners admitted to hospital.

In another prison, however, inspectors found staff sitting around rather than offering additional activities or support to prisoners, and some prisons inspectors visited still only unlocked prisoners in small groups – a system introduced during the pandemic which still severely limited time out of cell.


Inspectors noted several consequences for people in prison from this enduring period of time spent locked up in their cells. Chief of these was the impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

Inspectors noted that prisoners had to use their limited time out of cell to complete essential domestic tasks like showering, obtaining cleaning materials, booking visits, submitting applications, complaints and menu choices, or getting outside for some fresh air.

They noted that people in prison without access to in-cell showers or phones were particularly disadvantaged in this respect. There were few opportunities for association or socialising with peers.

People had to make difficult and unsatisfactory choices on how to spend their time out of cell:

“For example, in one prison the chapel orderlies had to choose between going to work and having time in the fresh air; in another attending chapel meant foregoing association; and in another, kitchen workers worked from 9am until 3pm but were locked up when they returned and did not get association time. Long waiting times for medication also meant that prisoners in many establishments often missed chapel, gym sessions or time outside.”

Unsurprisingly, many people who spoke to inspectors told them they were feeling bored and listless at weekends.

This is just the latest evidence from the inspectorate that very little is being achieved in terms of returning prisons to anything resembling the (far-from-perfect) regimes which existed before COVID.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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