The devastating impact of prison pandemic lockdowns on women

Work with offenders on an alarming new briefing from the Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) has published the fourth briefing from its CAPPTIVE initiative. The Covid-19 Action Prisons Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience (CAPPTIVE) builds on PRT’s Prisoner Policy Network (PPN). CAPPTIVE aims to listen to prisoners, their families, prison staff, and others to build a picture of how prisons are responding to the pandemic.

Like the PPN, CAPPTIVE is based on the insight that prisoners are experts in the experience of serving a sentence.  That expertise is a vital component of making any change for the better. The charity argues that right now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when every aspect of prison life has been affected, it is vital that prisoners are heard. PRT is committed to involving prisoners in capturing the experiences of living under these conditions and to explore what can be learnt from the “double lockdown” in prison.

Based on evidence from women in prison from May 2020 to May 2021, as well as supporting evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and other sources, the briefing looks at women’s experiences of prison during the first and second waves of the pandemic.

It highlights the consequences for women of a restricted regime amounting to ‘prolonged solitary confinement’, where they were often locked up for 23 hours a day without access to work, training or rehabilitation, and were not able to receive visits from family and loved ones.

The report contains a number of harrowing verbatim quotes from women enduring the “double lockdown”.

One woman said:

“Never in the six years of my sentence so far has lockdown been this severe or long…Mental health is deteriorating for me and [those] around me. Most were coping but over the past 2 to 3 weeks there is a lot of unrest. The worst cases are getting put in segregation and we hear the screaming which is awful.”

Another woman said:

“Mental health is a massive issue here in prisons and there is no duty of care for it, we are simply given a colouring pack. Depression, anxiety, discomfort, boredom and comfort eating, the ladies are piling the weight on. I feel I’m in the passenger seat of an out of control car are we are about to hit a brick wall.”

The importance of family contact, especially with children, emerged as a particularly important theme in the report. At the time the evidence was gathered for the briefing, social visits were suspended, and although measures to compensate for the lack of face-to-face visits were put in place, these were unable to fully make up for the loss.

Again the impact of these restrictions are evident from women prisoners’ own words:

“Personally I feel contact with family/friends is really hard. To start with, we were only allowed 10 mins phone time a day, which has now progressed to 20 mins a day, which isn’t enough…I think everyone’s main issue is family contact and maintaining family ties. This includes family members outside. They find it upsetting and are as frustrated as us.”

The report does identify a number of examples of positive practice, typically taking place in individual prisons, which have helped to make the restricted regime more bearable. These include increased provision to call and write to family members, access to exercise and other activities, and kindness from staff. Examples included HMP Eastwood Park where women in prison were enabled to read bedtime stories to their children using in-cell telephones and HMP Peterborough (which holds both men and women) increasing the number of letters that people were allowed to send.

Repairing the damage

The briefing concludes with a number of key recommendations that prisons could put in place to try to address the deteriorating mental health of women in prison as the system tries to open back up after the pandemic. These include:

  • Increase the number and duration of visits, providing open air visits and physical contact; but maintain phone credits and video calls
  • Provide support in the aftermath of visits that leave painful emotions
  • Enable staff and prisoners to discuss how they have been affected by the pandemic and the regime
  • Run wing meetings to gather the views of prisoners about what is most important to them and how to proceed
  • Create or maintain peer support workers and Covid-19 wellbeing reps and support them in their roles
  • Encourage officers to maintain empathy and caring in their work with prisoners
  • Explore how the recovery process needs to differ for women
  • Raise the level of mental health support in prison permanently.

Readers who would like to read the full report from PRT can do so here.