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What happens to prisoners in a pandemic?

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This thematic review explores the effects of the restrictions introduced in prisons during 2020 in response to COVID-19.

We interviewed men, women and children living on standard residential units who had not been able to attend work or education and had typically spent more than 22 hours a day in their cells since March 2020.

We found that the most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being.

What prisoners told us calls into question whether the right balance had been achieved between managing the risk posed by COVID-19 and providing them with enough meaningful activity, engagement and time out of cell.

The cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound. The lack of support to reduce reoffending and help prisoners address their risk of serious harm to the public does not fill me with hope for the longer term […] Locking prisoners up in prolonged isolation has never been a feature of a healthy prison.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor

What did prisoners tell us?

A man describes the intense physical effects of being locked up for long periods:

You can’t move, my kidneys and my body are hurting because you either have to lie down or sit in the chair for 23 hours, and there is nothing that you can do about it, and plus by staying in the chair seated because the room is so small, being seated and staying in the bed makes my kidneys and body ache, it’s quite hard.

Man, case study 8

A child talks about how the lack of activity affected his mental health:

It was like my life had gone to waste, I had nothing to do, absolutely nothing to do – couldn’t run – a feeling I’ve never felt in my life. It felt like I forgot myself, cos I was hardly talking… in my pad for that long I’d end up counting myself to sleep… I’d be that bored… cos I’d been in my pad for that long, I was counting every day, I’d count my toes, I’d count my fingers, I’d count my hands… I’d sit on my bed thinking, why am I counting? It felt like I forgot myself.

Child, case study 9

A man, in prison for the first time, describes his boredom and isolation:

…the only people I see are when I’m looking out my window really and see all the comings and goings… you try and make a story up for that person… I suppose it’s just like sitting in a café, oh I wonder who that person is, I wonder what that person does for a living.

…sometimes you look forward to that door opening, for your food, just so you can speak, even though you’re only saying thank you, you’ve got to make sure that your voice still works haven’t you?

Man, case study 10

A woman discusses how difficult it is to spend almost the entire day in her cell:

…your room is tiny…and you’re in that room 24/7, you’ve had your dinner in there, you’ve slept in there, you’ve done everything in there, and then… it’s just demotivating, those same four walls, it’s just demotivating.

Woman, paragraph 2.31

A woman explains how prisoners are gaining weight and suffering with their self-esteem:

…since lockdown they’ve actually been giving us more stuff, yeah we get more stuff in the packs… it’s just fatty stuff really like crisps, cereal bars, biscuits, and then you get fruit… but the rest of it is all starch and carbs and fatty stuff really, not a lot of healthy stuff… it’s not going to help with people being in a room 23 hours a day and not exercising, so everyone’s gaining weight… it’s not good for their self-esteem, like there’s a lot of girls who are really upset about their weight.

Woman, paragraph 2.75

A woman describes how hard it is to cope when the restrictions seem indefinite:

I just think it’s really, really affecting people’s mental health now. I think we all sort of, at the beginning of it, I think we all sort of just obviously thought – oh it won’t be for that long, it is what it is kind of thing, but we really didn’t think it were going to drag out seven months and probably longer…

Woman, paragraph 2.78

A child describes how much he misses visits from family and friends:

But now there’s no visits, it is tough to be honest – like not seeing your mum, your dad, your brothers, your friends, it is hard, but this is not forever, I mean like it’s not forever… little things, hugging and speaking to them, holding hands when I’m talking to them, you know, little things like… a lot of things to be honest… My mums got a lot of things going on, she’s getting on now – I’m always thinking about her – I’m always ringing her telling her, ah take your medication… I always used to do stuff for my mum… it is tough… it’s not forever, it’s temporary …

Child, paragraph 2.40

A woman describes how the restrictions have made it hard to see her young son:

After seeing him in July it was hurtful…it was actually really hurtful, it was really bad man, because he’s only three, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he doesn’t understand why, he just kept on asking, ‘Can I touch mummy? Can I touch mummy? Can I give mummy a kiss? Can I give mummy a hug?’ And to say ‘no’ to your child…it’s heart-breaking. Because he doesn’t understand and then he’s just going to start acting up, because that’s how he expresses himself, they don’t know how to talk at that age, they just act up, so it was hard, it was heart-breaking. So I don’t think I’ll even let him come back up during this lockdown… It felt like, I don’t know if this is the right word, but like neglect…like I can’t even touch him, do you know what I mean to say no to him when you haven’t seen him for so long, he hasn’t hugged me, kissed me, nothing. It’s a lot… and not just for me, for him.

Woman, paragraph 2.42

A woman discusses how difficult she found it not to get updates on her daughter:

Although I don’t speak to my daughter I used to get regular updates through the social worker and I couldn’t have that for quite a long time because the PACT people weren’t coming in. That was hard to not be able to find out any information about my daughter… it was all very third, fourth-hand information I was getting, and I wasn’t able to get the answers I needed as to where she was, what had happened… so it’s been quite a hard time because although I didn’t have much in the way of contact I knew that the social worker was only at the other end of the phone… but with them [the child’s social worker] not being at their offices either I couldn’t get through at all… in the last month, month and a half my OMU [offender management unit]  worker has been helping me out with making phone calls to the social worker but yeah the first three or four months were very difficult… I just felt like I’d lost her [my daughter] even more than I already had, I was just crying all the time… crying and sleeping, hurting myself, eating too much, watching too much telly, just not dealing with it in the proper way.

Woman, paragraph 2.47

A child worries that not mixing with others is preventing him from developing important coping skills:

… you’re not developing those social skills, and you’re not developing those skills how to interact with different sorts of people… If you go to the adult estate you don’t know how to deal with somebody who’s volatile, and you don’t know how to… stay out of their way… The point of a young offenders’ institute for young people is to ready them for the adult estate.

Child, paragraph 2.21

A man talks about receiving unofficial punishments from staff during the little time out of cell:

… depends if you do something wrong… I mean, if you wind the screws up, if you don’t bang up on time, you stay too long in the shower, you do something on the yard, just little little things… they’d just take your regime and exercise off you…the day after… you’d just get bang up all day.

Man, paragraph 2.37

A man discusses his anxiety about his forthcoming release:

… this COVID thing is out there, I’ve got no money, no clothes, nowhere to live, no tools, never signed on, dyslexic, suffer from mental health, I don’t know how society works… they literally sent me a blank CV and said fill this in… I’m worried to death about it …

Man, paragraph 2.65