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‘It’s too hot inside’ say prisoners suffering during UK record heatwave

People in prisons and immigration detention describe ‘dangerous and cruel conditions’ in cells as UK hits 40°C

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Nandini Archer
19 July 2022, 1.35pm

A prisoner at Portland Young Offenders Institution in Dorset, UK.

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Paul Doyle / Alamy Stock Photo. Image manipulation: James Battershill.

Prisoners and detainees say they are sweltering for up to 23 hours a day in poorly ventilated cells with no way of cooling down as the UK faces its hottest day on record.

It has even been alleged that officers at one jail are deliberately running the heating so that prisoners cannot get comfortable, something that the MoJ has staunchly denied, while one man in immigration detention said his room had no ventilation or air conditioning.

“The headaches and dehydration caused by the heat can be intense,” said Kevan Thakrar, a prisoner in HMP Belmarsh.

Thakrar is among prisoners who have passed testimony on to the group Community Action on Prison Expansion, which in turn has shared it with openDemocracy. 

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"Within segregation units, it is common practice to have to endure extreme temperatures,” he said.

“I have spent weeks in bed wearing two full tracksuits to keep warm, and weeks naked feeling too weak to move from the heat.

“Many segregation cells do not have openable windows, so ventilation is restricted, making it worse when it is already over 20°C outside, plus the heating in-cell.” 

Thakrar also claims the heating has been switched on in segregation units, even during heatwaves, so prisoners don’t get “too comfortable in segregation”.

It echoes claims made by abolition group Cradle Community to openDemocracy – as well as a public petition back in May that accused HMP Belmarsh of keeping temperatures in its segregation unit deliberately high, which alleged: “Despite the warm weather outside, heating is turned up full, making it unbearable on top of the conditions of solitary confinement.”

But the MoJ said there was “no truth” to claims that heating had been turned on at HMP Belmarsh in hot weather, “now or ever”.

“All the heating has been switched off the whole time,” said a spokesperson. “No heating has been put on to annoy prisoners as the allegations were suggesting.”

Thakrar says he has launched a legal claim against the prison for the way he’s been treated.

“I have submitted complaints while at HMP Belmarsh seeking to have the heating turned off or at least turned down,” he said, “but am given false excuses and lies about when it will be done only for me to continue suffering from heat exhaustion beyond that time.”

‘It’s too hot inside’

Campaigners this week drew up a petition called “It’s too hot inside”, with more than 30,000 backers.

They’re demanding that the Ministry of Justice and Home Office do more to make living conditions more bearable during the extreme weather, including by providing inmates with fans, iced water and mobile air conditioning.

One woman tweeted that she’d spoken to someone inside HMP Long Lartin. “Today, and each day this weekend, they only get 1 hour 15 mins out of their cell in the WHOLE 24 hour day. In this 30°+ heat. He’s told they have no staff, in a high security prison. How on earth can this continue to be acceptable?” 

The official HMP Long Lartin Twitter account tweeted out a reminder message to visitors last week: “Even with the predicted weather warning visitors should be mindful of the appropriate dress code when visiting the establishment.”

Immigration detention 

Zehrah Hasan, advocacy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), points out that it’s not just prisoners who are locked up and facing such “dangerous and cruel conditions”, but migrants, too.

“Whilst we all try to stay safe in the heatwave,” she said, “migrant communities who are locked up in detention centres are facing even more extreme temperatures.

“People in immigration detention must be given the vital resources they need to stay safe.” She urges the government “to prioritise communities not cages”.

One man being held in London, who has asked us not to publish his name, told openDemocracy through the charity Detention Action that the heat was “dreadful”.

“I can’t go out into the exercise yard because it’s too hot,” he said. “There’s no windows in my cell, no air conditioning, and I haven’t been given a fan.”

He alleges detainees have not received any information about the heatwave, and rely on the snippets of news that they can get. 

“I get locked in my cell at 9pm. I don’t get brought any water during the night. I’m normally a deep sleeper, but I can’t sleep. At night I wake up all the time, sweating like a pig.”

The Home Office initially claimed it would not be able to comment on the man’s allegations without further details – but then changed its mind, insisting the testimony we had put to it was “completely untrue”.

It said anyone detained in immigration centres had access to a “relaxed regime with fresh air in line with the Detention Centre Rules 2001”.

These rules say ventilation must be “adequate for health” and that “a detained person shall be given the opportunity to spend at least one hour in the open air every day” unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. More detailed rules hosted on the Home Office website concede that some rooms at detention centres may not have windows, but specify that they must have extractor fans fitted to allow air to circulate. There is no mention of temperature controls.

There's no windows in my cell, no air-conditioning and I haven't been given a fan

Detention Action is calling for the Home Office to release people who are vulnerable to the impact of the heat immediately. According to NHS guidance, this includes older people and people with long-term illnesses, mental health conditions and addiction problems. 

“Where detention is maintained, individual risk assessments should be put in place with steps taken to mitigate the risk of heat exposure,” said the group’s communications and campaigns manager Graeme McGregor.

The charity is also calling for the provision of air-conditioning, fans, water, ice and 24-hour access to outdoor spaces, as well as a halt to all "lock-ins”, where people are locked in their rooms with windows sealed shut.

Kelsey Mohamed, a facilitator from the prison abolition group Cradle Community, echoes these demands. She says most prisoners will still be locked up for almost 23 hours a day. “If the prisons would at least allow people to unlock their doors, which would circulate air better, that would save lives and make the conditions slightly more bearable.

“If the government treated people in prison with the care and humanity they are entitled to, there would be evacuation plans for people to leave these unsafe facilities.”

But she is not optimistic.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “as we have seen through the COVID-19 pandemic, the government refuses to safely release enough people to improve conditions and prefers to let them die whether from a virus or being cooked to death.” COVID-19 ripped through jails and saw a death rate three times higher among the prison population than the public. 

Another prisoner, who wishes to remain anonymous, told openDemocracy that they didn’t believe the Ministry of Justice would do much to improve their conditions.

“It’s really hot and the cells are getting hotter,” they said. “It’s laughable that the prisons will do anything to make it cooler for us inside.” 

openDemocracy asked the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office for details of their plans for prisoners and detainees centres during the heatwave.

A spokesperson for the MoJ told openDemocracy: “Guidance has been issued to prisons about action they need to take, working with the NHS to identify the most vulnerable in the prison, adjusting regimes to minimise exposure to the heat and numbers of people in hot areas.

“Guidance includes offering fluids and fans to prisoners.”

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