Too many prisoners live in overcrowded, insanitary and degrading cell conditions

Many prisoners are locked up in cells for long periods in insanitary, unhygienic and degrading conditions that threaten their health and can drive them to take drugs, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke.

While high security, women’s and open prisons generally have decent conditions, the picture in many local and training prisons – home to the bulk of prisoners in England and Wales – is bleak, Mr Clarke said.

Publishing a report, Life in prison: Living conditions, containing many disturbing images, Mr Clarke said:  “All too often, prisoners are held in conditions that fall short of what most members of the public would consider as reasonable or decent.”

Evidence in the report raised the question, Mr Clarke said, of “whether it is acceptable for prisoners to be held in these conditions in the United Kingdom in 2017.”

Overcrowded cells, with two or more prisoners, often have an unscreened or inadequately screened lavatory, frequently without a lid, or sometimes with a makeshift lid made of cardboard, pillowcases or food trays. Ventilation is frequently poor. The paper captures accounts from prisoners, in cells holding two or more people, “of what it feels like to eat and sleep in what is, in effect, a shared lavatory.”

In local prisons, 31% of prisoners reported being locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) figures for 2016/17 showed a quarter of prisoners overall lived in overcrowded conditions. The figure rose to 48% of prisoners in local jails.

The report, based on evidence from HMIP inspection visits, notes that:

  • Prisoners are frequently required to eat all their meals in these cells – “in what are obviously insanitary, unhygienic and degrading conditions. They face health risks inherent in flushing open lavatories in confined spaces which have to serve as a bedroom and dining room (and sometimes as a kitchen).” One prisoner said: “‘I feel no one should be forced to eat their food a couple of feet away from their toilet. Some sit on their toilet as a seat to eat. This is degrading and totally unhygienic.”
  • Prisoners can only get cleaning materials on a weekly basis in only around half of jails. One prisoner told inspectors: “The only way of cleaning our cell floors is by using used T-shirts and pouring water on our floors, and mopping the water up with T-shirts as we do not get to mop our floors.”
  • While most prisoners can shower every day, this falls to only 51% in prisons holding young adults, aged from 18–21.

Mr Clarke said:

“The aspirations of the prison reform programme will not be met if prisoners are confined in conditions that embitter and demoralise, leaving them unable to access rehabilitative activities and, all too often, turning to illicit drugs to break the boredom born of long periods locked in their cells.”


Notes to editors:

  1. A copy of the full report, published 10 October 2017, can be found here.
  2. A file of further photographs of poor living conditions, from prison visits which have taken place since the Living conditions report was completed, is also published on 10 October.
  3. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  4. The Living conditions report is part of a series of ‘findings papers’ which focus on daily life in adult prisons and young offender institutions (YOIs) holding young adults aged 18 to 21 years.
  5. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons press office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452 if you would like more information.