What’s it like being in prison through lockdown?

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody gives a unique insight into the experiences of those detained in prisons during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) has today published the second part of an intriguing report which gives a unique insight into the experiences of those detained in prisons during the Covid-19 crisis. Drawing on radio messages from over 200 prisoners across 55 prisons, almost half the prison estate, the IAP presents voices, usually unheard, and views, often unsought, of people in prison in unprecedented times.

The first part of the report, published in June, focused on prisoners’ experience of being locked down. Prisoners’ messages revealed a high degree of respect and appreciation for staff with a number of key themes emerging:

  • Prisoners were keenly aware of risks of spreading the virus through an absence of PPE and difficulties in complying with social distancing.
  • Severely restricted regimes were having a negative impact on many prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing.
  • Many vulnerable people spoke highly of the support and help they were getting.
  • For some people there was a strong sense of all being in this together although others felt very differently.
  • Family contact mattered to many and in-cell phones and additional handsets had made a big difference. For some it was still a struggle to stay in touch with loved ones.
  • Many people were grieving for family and friends who had died from coronavirus.

Today’s report publishes prisoners’ insightful ideas on active steps that can be taken to improve their safety during and after the pandemic. Prisoners stressed how important it is to have something to do and someone to talk to:

‘I'm sure there is a lot of prisoners suffering from severe anxiety, isolating in their cells not knowing when they're going to be unlocked.’

‘… I'm talking to walls at the moment which is affecting my mental health. We're in desperate need for some stimulation for our brains.’

People in prison also highlighted the need for meaningful and productive activity which would increase their chances of successful rehabilitation and a productive fresh start upon release:

‘This is my change. They should train people up in here, get qualifications, give them a chance to work in a special workshop where they're making things, they get paid, where they can save money, give a bit back to the jail or victim support, but a portion of the money goes to them so they can save up and get out and have a fresh start’.

The report acknowledges that the prison service has a difficult balance to strike between painstaking work on recovery and managing the implications of a second wave of the virus. The report responds to continuing stories from a number of prisons which seem to be keen to keep restricted regimes even after COVID-19 has finally (we hope) been eradicated. There are worryingly common tales of staff, including some governors, saying that their establishment is much calmer with prisoners restricted to their cells for 22 hours per day and that the current regime should become the new normal. The IAP report is adamant that these calls for continued heightened lock-up, even after the pandemic is finally over, need to be resisted. While it is clear that there is likely to be less violence and bullying when people in prison are denied the chance to interact, it is clear that prolonged periods of what comes very close to being solitary confinement will exact a huge and lasting toll on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the majority of people in prison. This situation is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that most prisoners have not had a visit from a family member or friend since the middle of March.

People in prison quoted in the report offer vital insight into how the experiences of this terrible time can inform future improvements. More than anything, prisoners urge the prison service to avoid losing ground on reform or returning to bad habits, instead using the opportunity to reimagine the purpose of prisons, and how they are run:

‘I would like the prison service to use this lockdown time to try some new initiatives regarding rehabilitation and education and mental health. Extreme times call for extreme actions, and the biggest shame in prisons is the waste of human resources.’

Many prisoners quoted in the report are anxious about lockdown becoming the norm in prison life and several were keen to highlight that many prison staff have stepped up to provide much needed support:

For many, safety was about interaction with considerate staff who listen and they can trust, who prioritise acts of kindness and are supported by their employer through resourcing, support and supervision.’

You can read the full report here.