Why Do Prisoners Struggle to Sleep and Why Should We Care?

Prisons can be noisy places. Prisoners who do not get regular, quality sleep are at risk of damage to their health and psychological wellbeing.

There are many factors in prison that mitigate against a good night’s sleep. In many prisons, small cells built in the Victorian era to house one man, now house two. They serve as a place to eat, sleep, defecate and pass (in some cases) up to 22 hours a day[1].  The Victorian prison estate is dilapidated. Cells can be stifling in summer and freezing in winter. They may also house vermin, contravening minimum standards agreed by the UN[2].

It's not just their cells that are a problem. The typical budget for feeding an adult male prisoner is £2.02[3]. Dinner is often served early in the evening, causing prisoners to go to bed hungry, which also means they struggle to sleep.

Four in ten prisoners[4] have diagnosed mental health conditions and 15% are substance addicted[5]. These inmates are likely to be housed on the same wings as the general population. These inmates are likely, in their anxiety and struggle, to be noisy.

While it’s true that some prisoners can nap during the day, the quality of this sleep is poor: the lights are on plus there’s the noise and bustle of the prison. Good quality sleep is fundamental to health. Sleep protects our body from illness and allows it to recover: it is nature’s wonder drug but, all too often, is totally ignored by policymakers.

In his book Why We Sleep, Dr Matthew Walker outlines the negative health effects of not getting enough sleep including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, poor metabolisms, weakened immune systems, depression, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

There are two main categories of sleep. We first fall into a deep sleep called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and we shift to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep as morning approaches. REM sleep is where we do most of our dreaming. The brain transfers short term memories from the hippocampus to the cortex for long term storage during the deep NREM sleep. If this is interrupted, that memory transfer can be compromised affecting that person’s memory[6].

Impaired or insecure memory could impact on inmates’ legal cases, their ability to take advantage of education or training opportunities in prison, and their ability to regulate their behaviour. Deprivation of NREM sleep has also been linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD[7].

Prisons should be places of rehabilitation. The fact that over half of those leaving prison reoffend within a year suggests prisons are not giving offenders the tools they need to rebuild their lives.

The last Prisons Act dates from 1952. The composition, size and needs of our prison population is vastly different to 70 years ago. Prison reform is overdue. It must provide for new, fit for purpose buildings, an explicitly stated rehabilitative purpose, therapeutic interventions, real educational opportunities and work readiness programmes as well as a focus on wellbeing that would recognise the need for a good night’s sleep.

Prisoners are deprived of their liberty. We should not be depriving them of their long-term health or their memories. If society is serious about giving prisoners a second chance, we need to ensure they get a proper night’s sleep.

James Potts is a Young Fabian. He chairs the Devolution & Local Government Network.

He tweets at @JamesPotts.


[1] P3 HM Inspectorate of Prisons “Life in prison: Living conditions” https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/10/Findings-paper-Living-conditions-FINAL-.pdf [Accessed 24/7/20]

[2] P9 ibid

[3] P4 HM Inspectorate of Prisons “Life in prison: Food” https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/09/Life-in-prison-Food-Web-2016.pdf [Accessed 24/7/20]

[4] P119 HM Inspectorate of Prisons “Annual Report 2018-19” https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/07/6.5563_HMI-Prisons-AR_2018-19_WEB_FINAL_040719.pdf [Accessed 24/7/20]

[5] Bulman, May “Twice as many prisoners developing drug problems as five years ago, figures show” The Independent 20/1/20 www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/prison-drug-problem-jail-uk-illicit-substances-reform-a9288616.html [Accessed 24/7/20]

[6] P113 Walker, Matthew (2018) “Why We Sleep”. Penguin Books

[7] P91 ibid

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