Prison officers can work 24-hour shifts at weekends while inmates are sometimes unable to access medical care or do basic tasks, a report has found.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found 60% of male prisoners and 66% of female inmates said they spend less than two hours out of their cell on a typical Saturday or Sunday.
On a weekday 42% of male prisoners and 36% of female inmates said they spend less than two hours a day outside their cell.
Nine in 10 jails were said not to provide sufficiently good “purposeful activity” at weekends compared with a previous low of 46% in 2016-17.
Men were more than twice as likely and women were four times as likely to say they are locked up for more than 22 hours a day than they did before the pandemic.
Those in high-security jails were found to be spending less time in their cells than those in other prisons.
In one prison, access to emergency healthcare was so poor an inmate with a suspected fractured hand was told no one could take him for an X-ray until the Monday.
Other prisons had better access to healthcare, providing emergency cover but not routine appointments.
Case reviews for prisoners deemed at risk of self-harm or suicide were often not held at weekends as mental health professionals were not available.
The report also found most prisoners were not unlocked for long enough to have a shower or do chores such as cleaning their cell, making phone calls and making applications at weekends.
Opportunities for inmates to engage in constructive activities such as going to the gym were limited because some gyms were not always open and libraries were closed.
Time in the open air is not guaranteed at weekends, the report found.
When inmates were allowed to socialise for short periods, equipment was often broken.
Prison bosses told inspectors “chronic” staff shortages meant they could not run a weekend regime where inmates spend more time out of their cells.
In one jail staff volunteered to cover the overnight watch for inmates admitted to hospital.
However, the inspectorate said staff at another prison were “sitting around” rather than offering extra support and activities to inmates.
Family and friends were allowed to visit inmates and slots were not oversubscribed.
His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said: “Most prisoners are released back into the community at some point.
“If we aren’t rehabilitating them, and are even damaging them further through never-ending lock-up, what is going to happen when they are released?
“As pressure from prison populations rises, the situation can only worsen unless the prison service acts now.”
The inspectorate visited 11 prisons unannounced for a day and surveyed 6,000 inmates to compile the report.
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our necessary action during the pandemic saved lives and we have since asked all prisons to review their education, training and activities so prisoners can focus on their rehabilitation and in turn cut reoffending.
“We are also recruiting up to 5,000 more prison officers by the mid-2020s and creating a Prisoner Education Service to ensure prisoners have the literacy and numeracy skills they need to stay on the straight and narrow, and away from crime.”