Over 600 prisoners at a high-security jail near Market Harborough have been “hit very hard” by the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.
Prison watchdog chief Tim Norman, 71, said 636 inmates at Gartree prison have been “locked up for incredibly long periods of time” while not being able to receive any visitors over the last year.
The chair of the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) spoke out as he released their annual report – almost a year to the day since the country’s first national coronavirus lockdown was imposed on March 23, 2020.
Tim told the Harborough Mail: “The past year has certainly been like a year no other for us.
“And it’s been absolutely no different for both the inmates and the staff at Gartree Prison.
“Their last 12 months at the jail has been totally dominated by the pandemic lockdowns full stop – and it’s clearly been very tough.”
He stressed: “The unexpected and unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the prison hard.
“The prisoners have been locked up for incredibly long periods of time.
“Both prisoners and staff alike have been faced with massive and unavoidable challenges because of the full lockdown.”
Tim saluted both the inmates – who include murderers, killers and other serious criminals serving life sentences stretching up to 30 years – as well as wardens and other staff.
“Inmates have inevitably often been confined to their cells for many hours at a time.
“It’s obviously been very rough for them,” said Tim, who lives near Market Harborough.
“But they have shown great forbearance and patience as well as resilience and tolerance during this unprecedented year.
“Their access to education, exercise and working has understandably been seriously affected by the continuing Covid threat.
“But on the whole they have just got on with it and coped with this extremely challenging situation really well.
“They have been able to stay in touch with their families and loved ones who have not been able to visit them using iPads under strict supervision.
“Some inmates also have phones – but they can only call approved numbers and they are monitored,” said the former head of logistics for top wildlife and conservation charity the RSPB.
Praising hard-stretched, under-pressure staff running the 56-year-old high-profile jail, Tim said: “They have risen to this massive challenge and dealt with it brilliantly from start to finish.
“Staff sickness has been minimal.
“Wardens and their colleagues have pulled out all the stops to look after inmates and keep the prison ticking over.
“They all wear a face covering – including office workers – at all times and keep their social distance.
“Wardens have to wear full PPE (personal protective equipment) such as visors, masks and aprons, if they go on to lockdown wings.”
The committed IMB chief said they has suffered several coronavirus outbreaks at the Category-B establishment set up in 1965.
“We had 27 Covid cases among prisoners last month – with all but two of them confined to just one wing.
“Sadly, we had one death last summer,” said Tim.
“We had another two to three new cases last week – but that’s been contained.”
He said the number of incidents involving illegal drink (hooch) and drugs has dropped amid successive severe lockdowns.
Attacks on fellow inmates have plunged from 78 to 52 last year, assaults on staff have fallen from 81 to 48 and violent incidents have plummeted to 119 from 159.
The cases of inmates harming themselves have also plunged – from 562 in 2019 to 350 last year.
Tim is now stepping up calls for the Ministry of Justice to urgently pour more cash into refurbishing and modernising the ageing prison and dragging it into the 21st century.
“Four of the big wings – A, B, C and D – were all built back in the 1960s.
“They are seriously showing their age now.
“The showers are old and not very good while the kitchens are leaking,” said Tim.
“Structurally, Gartree is in poor shape and money urgently needs to be spent to bring it up to scratch.
“This is the same story right across the UK’s prison estate.
“I know that money is tight amid the pandemic.
“But it’s only right and proper that in a civilised society we treat our prisoners with common decency.
“We should treat them as we would everyone else in our community.
“But I would finally like to salute both staff and inmates at Gartree once again.
“They have all stepped up the mark throughout an unbelievably tough year, the like of which we’ve never seen before – and that’s got to be a huge positive for everyone at Gartree Prison.”