Is there any such thing as privacy in prison?

We spoke to wardens and former prisoners

... Image: Bryan Kennedy

Prison Watch UK spoke to staff and prisoners to discover if privacy is possible behind bars. Image: Bryan Kennedy


Last week prison wardens at HMP Holloway were ordered to knock on inmates’ cell doors before entering, in order to respect prisoners’ privacy.

We spoke to some prisoners and staff about “privacy” behind bars. Here’s what they had to say.


But first some news on privacy in a London prison

A recent report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons recommended that officers at HMP Holloway should knock and ‘wait for a response before entering rooms’.

The report said that inmates at the prison should expect to live in a “safe, clean and decent environment”. It found that “too many women reported feeling unsafe” and that “living in cramped dormitories with little privacy was likely to have contributed to some feeling unsafe”.


Are there any rules on privacy in prison? 

Under Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, everyone has the right to privacy.

Prison Rules

Do privacy rules match the practicalities of prison?


However the Penal Reform Trust’s Prison Rules: A Working Guide documents the practicalities of this right:

  • The legalities: Nowhere in a prison legally constitutes a “private place”.
  • Searches: Prisoners and accommodation should be searched on a regular basis, but searches “should be carried out with proper regard for the prisoner’s privacy and dignity”.
  • Medical exams: The Home Office insisted that non-medical staff be present at prisoners’ medical exams because security was deemed to be a higher priority than a prisoner’s privacy.
  • Phone calls: Prisons have installed card phones to respect the privacy of calls as long as it doesn’t compromise the interests of security and the good order of the prison.
  • Phone restrictions: Inmates convicted of stalking, sexual offences against children, or of making or attempting to make obscene telephone calls or other communication have all outgoing mail and telephone calls monitored, except for official and legally privileged communications.


What the wardens say about privacy in prison

Pauline, a prison officer whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said the door knocking rules “go a step too far“:

“We wouldn’t automatically enter unless we had reason to. It is for the prisoners safety. For example, they are not allowed to cover their observation panels. If they do, then we need to check they’re OK inside.

... Image: Erik Wilde

If observation panels are blocked, knocking before entering may be out of the question. Image: Erik Wilde

“Also, inmates sometimes use distractions to stop officers going into parts of the prison so they can do things that they shouldn’t be doing (bullying, having sexual relations).

“If we’re expected to knock and wait for a response, that could allow prisoners time to cover up what they’re doing.”


Privacy for female prisoners

Kerry Noble, 42, says she cannot understand why waiting for a response “before entering someone’s private space is unreasonable”. The mother of four says:

“In closed prisons there was little privacy. Well, as much privacy that is possible when 60 women share a bathroom. Officers would open the hatch on the cell door if it was closed, whenever they felt like it, male or female.

“They would turn the light on during the night, supposedly to do night checks, but when the next morning you are told how ‘cute your bottom looks in PJs’, kind of smacks of a little bit of voyeurism.”

Open prison was a markedly different experience for Kerry, who spent seven and a half months behind bars:

“I never met an officer who didn’t knock on the door. Well, except for the one who walked into our room to ‘acquire’ some milk and sugar for his coffee while I was having an afternoon nap.”

But she says the lack of privacy took its toll, even when she had left prison:

“You become accustomed to someone, something else having control over your life… It’s hard to take that control back.”


... Image: David

Night checks left one prisoner we spoke with suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Image: David


A lasting effect…  

Debbie, who was jailed for five and a half months, now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, over a year after her release.

“It’s mainly linked to the regime at night. You have people looking in at you constantly, someone walking past every half an hour and not only walking past but shining a torch through cell door hatch. For five and a half months I didn’t have a single night’s sleep and I haven’t since I’ve been home.

“I get flashbacks and I’m right back in prison. I hear and see it all again, the noise, the lights going on, the sound of foot steps, the women screaming and banging on bars. All the things I witnessed.”

The 55-year-old former charity worker says the lack of privacy in prison destroys any concept the prisoner has of themselves:

“It totally takes away your identity, it takes away that last little bit of what is the essence of you. It reduces you down to what you are in everyone else’s eyes – just some person with a prison number.”


And for male prisoners  

Former prisoner and Prison UK: An Insider’s View blogger, Alex Cavendish, says there is absolutely no expectation of privacy in a male’s jail.

“From the moment you arrive you are told a proportion of all your incoming and outgoing mail will be checked and that phone calls are routinely recorded, so you can assume that you have no privacy of correspondence.

You have no control over your body. Any officer can order you to strip at any time. And this is impressed upon you from the first day, when after induction they take you aside, strip search you and give you a prison uniform to wear.”


Will Chief Inspector’s recommendation change anything? 

Debbie, is hopeful that the report’s recommendation could be the beginning, “I think it’s a start, an accommodation that can be made that will give back female prisoners some form of self respect.”

But prison officer Pauline has reservations, “there is a fine line between giving people the most privacy they can have and the need for security and order in the establishment. There are going to be times when that overlaps.”

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