#Covid in Prison: Revealing the Dark Impact of the Pandemic

Measures to limit the transmission of Covid-19 led to periods of prolonged solitary confinement across the prison population, resulting in dramatically increased levels of anxiety and depression.

A new report ‘Coping with Covid in Prisons’   funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was a partnership between the ex-offender led charity User Voice and social scientists at Queen’s University Belfast.

The emergence of Covid-19 represented an additional crisis involving almost unprecedented risk to the lives of the incarcerated. In response, prisons in England and Wales implemented a ‘lockdown’ that involved confining prisoners to their cells for over 23 hours a day. This decision probably saved lives under extremely difficult conditions. However, as the voices in this report recount in detail, the lockdown had considerable risks of its own, including on prisoners’ health, mental wellbeing, and rehabilitation journeys.

Coping With Covid

Developed by User Voice, nearly 100 serving prisoners were trained in research methods to survey their peers. Over the 18-month project, these volunteers completed over 1,400 surveys with fellow prisoners across 11 prisons in England and Wales.

User Voice’s Founder and CEO Mark Johnson MBE said:

“When almost no one was able to get into prisons, we were able to conduct one of the largest studies of prisoner experiences. This research has been led by prisoners, using our innovative approach developed over the past 15 years and now validated by academics.

“The report reveals one of the darkest and most hidden results of the pandemic, the true effects of extreme lockdown and confinement on prisoners and ultimately, on the public. It shows that we need to talk about criminal justice. Are prisons just for punishment or are they failing prisoners and the public if they don’t offer the support which leads to rehabilitation?”

Key findings:

· 85% of prisoners surveyed were confined to cells for 23 hours for the majority of the lockdown period.

· 59% of prisoners surveyed had not had a single visit with family during the Covid lockdown.

· Standard screening tools suggest depression and anxiety scores are almost five times higher than the standard for the general population.

· More than one out of three prisoners were scoring at the level of “severe anxiety disorder” indicating high levels of post-traumatic stress.

· Two thirds of survey respondents said that access to mental health support had worsened, instead of improving, during the lockdown.

· One out of five respondents thought that violence had reduced in the prisons because of the lockdown.

Professor Shadd Maruna, Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, explained:

“Prisons were in crisis before the pandemic, and remarkably some voices have claimed that life in prison has actually improved because of the Covid lockdown.

“Our research definitively demonstrates that the social climate in prison has become dramatically worse after the lockdown, and a great deal of work is going to be needed to restore a sense of trust and legitimacy among the incarcerated. Peer-led models, like the kind that drove this research project, have the potential to do just that if implemented correctly.”

Staffing was one of the most frequently reported issues impacting prisoners’ experience. Over half of survey respondents (56%) felt that staff prisoner relationships had deteriorated, while only 10% considered that relationships were getting ‘better’ or ‘much better’.

Coping with Covid

Prisons in Scotland:

In May 2020 a report published by Robert Armour in TFN raised the issue of conditions in Scottish prisons as breaching human rights during lockdown. In person prison visits were suspended on 24th of March 2020. It was a challenging time for prisoners and those working within the prison system. Some prisoners were considered for early release and virtual visits were commenced. Robert Armour’s report highlights the concerns of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. In a letter to Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice in 2020 it said:

“prisoners are being confined to their cell for 24 hours a day, for extended periods of time, with no access to shower facilities or time out of cell including access to outdoor exercise.”

Although in person visits have recommenced the incidence of Covid-19 in prisons is as follows:

Statement from the Scottish Prison Service

As at Monday 18/07/2022 there are currently 245 individuals who are self-isolating across 11 establishments. A significant number of individuals are self isolating due to potential contact with a confirmed case.

Fiona Grahame

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