Inside Time Articles

Ryan Harman, PRT's advice and information service manager, writes a regular column for the prison newspaper Inside Time, you can read his articles here.

Time out of cell
01/04/2016 00:01:00 by Ryan Harman

Michael Gove, in his evidence to the House of Commons justice select committee in March, stated that time spent by prisoners out of their cells could be one of a number of key indicators introduced to measure prison performance. This would be a welcome move and an important acknowledgement of the valuable contribution time out of cell makes to improving the quality of prison life.

Our advice and information service often hears from people wanting to know how many hours a day they should be allowed out their cell, whether association should be during particular hours or how much time they should get in the open air. There is little surprise that being stuck behind a cell door for hours per day has become the increasing experience of life in prison for many. With the number of staff employed by public prisons having fallen by 30% in the last five years, there are now fewer staff looking after more prisoners. Inevitably this has an impact on regime including the amount of time prisoners have out of their cells. In their annual report 2014-2015, HM Chief Inspectors reported that one in 5 prisoners interviewed reported spending less than two hours a day out of their cells during the week. Only one in seven said they spent 10 hours or more out of their cell each day.

Unfortunately, there are few rules determining how long people should be locked up for and it is not unlawful to be kept in your cell for long periods of time. PSI 75/2011 Residential services states that ‘Prisoners must be afforded time out of their living accommodation, time in the open air and the opportunity for family contactbut it does not set any minimum standards. PSI 30/2013 Incentives and Earned Privileges lists time out of cell as a recommended earnable privilege for prisoners, but leaves it up to each prison to decide what theses limits might be.

There are more specific guidelines on time in the open air, though these are not generous. You should get a minimum of 30 minutes in the open air daily, though this is subject to weather conditions and need to maintain good order and discipline. Time outdoors as part of work or sport counts, as does time in the open air moving between activities. The 30 minutes can be split into two periods but no more than this.

Other instructions give some basic indication of what a normal regime should include. You should be given access to a telephone at times when family and friends are available and at reasonably frequent intervals. Further to this, PSI 49/2011 Prisoner Communications states that the time available for using the phones must not normally be less than two hours each day. Although PSI 75/2011 says that prisoners should have access to facilities to meet personal hygiene needs it again does not specify expected frequency and the minimum requirement is therefore set by Prison Rule 28(2) which states that prisoners have a bath or shower at least weekly. Prison Rules also include the minimum requirements for physical exercise which stands at one hour per week for over 21s and two hours a week on average for under 21s.

It remains our view that these minimum standards, even when met, are indecent. Although we recognise that many prisons normally deliver above these standards we believe that these minimums should be reviewed and increased to more acceptable levels.

However, despite the difficulties that are faced by many, we also hear of creative approaches to these problems which provide hope and perhaps a template for other prisons. For example, we are aware that some prisons have taken the decision to get rid of lunch time bang up. We had indication from prisoners that some establishments they have provided increased hours out of cell for older people and those unable to work due to disability.

Prison Reform Trust saw a particularly refreshing example of this in HMP Birmingham recently. There the director met with prisoner representatives every week to review the levels of association. He would allow the reps to give views as to whether more people could safely be granted association at a given time and use this to decide on the following weeks association. This approach appeared to be highly effective both in maximising safe association and including prisoners in the decision making process.

We would be very interested to hear from prisoners who have experienced similar new approaches to managing time out of cell, as well as from those who are experiencing difficulty in this area.

You can contact the Prison Reform Trust’s advice team at FREEPOST ND6125 London EC1B 1PN. Our free information line is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 3.30-5.30. The number is 0808 802 0060 and does not need to be put on your pin.