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Locked up in lockdown: Life on remand during the pandemic
A new report from Fair Trials paints a harrowing picture of life in custody in over the past 15 months. The report Locked up in Lockdown, Life on remand during the pandemic, includes individual accounts from 23 people who are or have recently been remanded in a prison awaiting trial during the COVID-19 pandemic, in their own words.The letters show:
- People held on remand are pleading guilty simply to avoid excessive time in prison awaiting trial, following court delays across England and Wales.
- There is a mental health crisis among people on remand, including self-harm and suicide.
- Being held on remand seriously impacts your health, wellbeing and relationships, with no recompense if you are found not guilty.
Testimonies were collected from 19 different prisons across England and Wales, following an advert Fair Trials placed in Inside Time newspaper, asking people to write about their experiences of pre-trial detention during the pandemic.
“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 amongst people held in prisons.
These people’s voices, experience and opinions are often ignored or avoided, but they deserve to be heard. People should know the real impact of trial delays on someone’s life, what has been going on behind prison gates during the pandemic, and how severely this has impacted people held on remand physically and mentally. Urgent action is needed, now.” Griff Ferris, Fair Trials’ Legal and Policy Officer
Findings of the report
People should only be held in pre-trial detention as an exceptional measure and cases must be brought to trial within a reasonable time. This report shows however, that this is often not the case. Thousands of people are being held on remand for months, sometimes years, far beyond time limits set out in legislation, leading to a number of serious issues.
People are pleading guilty to get out of extended remand custody.
Of the 23 people who wrote to Fair Trials, 12 said they have plead guilty, considered pleading guilty, or know people who have plead guilty to offences they did not commit in order to get out of extended pre-trial detention during the pandemic. Several spoke about the pain of wanting to get out but not wanting a criminal record or to plead guilty to something serious that they had not done.
“Absolutely, I am considering pleading guilty in order to get my freedom back and to get out of extended remand time. It is almost impossible to get a fair trial.” Agnes
“I was totally innocent but due to the conditions, time locked up and not being able to get appropriate legal conferences I was willing to plead guilty to get out of there. I was well over my custody limit as well. I am aware of at least 4 other people who pleaded guilty just so they didn’t have to stay in HMP Preston potentially until 2022 just to have a trial. It is totally wrong and unjust.” Alex
Prison conditions are branded as “inhumane”, with prison lockdown amounting to solitary confinement, while many people are unable to see or speak to their loved ones at all.
People are held in their cells for more than 23 hours a day, and sometimes days at a time, with showers and exercise allowed intermittently. Even in the best circumstances, contact with friends, families and others is restricted to monthly video-calls, with many unable to speak to their loved ones at all. Many have been denied access to healthcare, support and opportunities to learn.
“The conditions are disgraceful. I am locked 23 hours per day, with a maximum of 20 minutes of fresh air. There is no exercise possibility. I have not had any video calls with family or friends.” Agnes
“We have been treated like animals for over a year now. We get 30 minutes of walking outside and spend the rest of the time locked up.” Dom
There is a mental health crisis amongst remand prisoners, and prisoners generally, including crisis levels of self-harm, as well as accusations of safeguarding failures by prison authorities.
The extended remand times, uncertainty of trial dates, long periods of isolation in prisons as well as isolation from friends, family and loved ones, and the conditions people are held in, has impacted prisoners physically, mentally and emotionally, leading to rampant levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Several people made allegations that prison authorities did nothing when informed of intentions to self-harm.
“My kids have not seen me in person in over 1 year and I can’t tell them when I’ll be able to see them let alone hug them.” Keeley
“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 is getting worse, and the stress on my pregnant wife and teenage kids already is terrible. I have even self-harmed, had no help from mental health, no counselling can be facilitated, and still have no clue as to when it [the trial] will be…” Stuart
“The impact physically and mentally is huge. I am restless, exhausted, can’t concentrate, going blank, feeling lonely and isolated. My heart flutters, I feel shaky. (…) Nobody is asking how one feels, the impact for me and my loved ones is very stressful. It is as if I lost my anchor to life.” Agnes
“Mental health is worse, been self-harming more and even told staff I wanted to kill myself and they don’t do anything.” Nick
Access to legal advice and speaking to a lawyer while on remand has been severely impacted by the pandemic and the use of ‘remote’ video-link calls.
People held in prison awaiting trial must be able to speak to their lawyer about their case and get legal advice. However, many people said the connections were often poor, meetings were short, and prison authorities error led to conferences being missed or cut even shorter, and there were concerns over confidentiality.
“I struggled to have conferences with my solicitor and couldn’t get to speak to him for 5 mins on the day of my hearing in which he stated that if I was to plead guilty then my trial would be put off for a year.” Alex
“Since lockdown, I have only received 2 or 3 video conferences and they have been totally inadequate, and I feel it’s no substitution as there’s delay and [we] end up talking over each other.” Jake
People allege they are being held in pre-trial detention without good reason, such as for low-level offences, and there is a bias against foreign nationals and people experiencing homelessness.
“So I apply 3 times for bail. First time they say I am flight risk because I am Lithuanian, and it doesn’t matter I live here for 12 years, have all my family here, mother, sister, now ex and my son at that time when I was arrested, he was only 3” Farhan
“I have not applied for bail. Bail is hard to achieve for a foreigner” Agnes
“I haven’t been able to apply for bail because I literally have no address or anywhere to go…” Miriam
About remand custody and custody time limits
The legal limit that someone can be held in prison awaiting trial in the Crown Court is six months, known as a ‘custody time limit’. In September 2020, the Government temporarily increased the length of time they are legally allowed to hold people awaiting trial from six to eight months, until 28 June 2021.
Thousands of people are being held in prison awaiting trial beyond the legal limit. More than 2,500 of the 12,000 people held in prison awaiting trial in December 2020 had been held for longer than eight months – a quarter of the remand population at the time. More than 3,600 people had been held longer than six months.
In 2020, 2,380 people who were remanded in custody, one in ten of all those remanded, were acquitted at trial. A quarter of all those remanded in custody in 2020 – 6,888 people – were not sent to prison following their trial. The figures for 2019 were the same.
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