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The Coronavirus Crisis: Will Our COVID-19 Lockdown Make Us think More About Why We Imprison So Many People?

Duncan Campbell discusses how the words ‘lockdown’ and ‘stir-crazy” were an all too familiar reality for a section of our society long before the Coronavirus pandemic appeared.

The Coronavirus Crisis
Will Our COVID-19 Lockdown Make Us think More About Why We Imprison So Many People?

Duncan Campbell discusses how the words ‘lockdown’ and ‘stir-crazy’ were an all too familiar reality for a section of our society long before the Coronavirus pandemic appeared.

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The word ‘lockdown’, according to lexicographer Jonathan Green, first appears in 1977 in a novel by Edward Bunker called Animal Factory.

Bunker was a Californian armed robber and drug dealer who, at the age of 17, was the youngest prisoner in San Quentin jail where his book is set. He spent many years behind bars before emerging in 1975 to become both a successful author and an actor – he was Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – and he died in 2005 aged 71. Animal Factory became a film too, directed by Steve Buscemi and with Willem Dafoe in the leading role.

Bunker was certainly a man who knew exactly what a real ‘lockdown’ was: every prisoner confined to their cells; a prison within a prison.

‘Stir-crazy’, meaning someone driven mad by too much time in jail, first appears in literature much earlier – more than a century ago. “A prisoner who has succumbed to prison-induced insanity,” as Green puts it. There are variations, such as ‘stir-batty’ and ‘stir-looney’ and sufferers could be called a ‘stir-nut’ or a ‘stir-psycho’. The word ‘stir’ itself – as slang for ‘prison’ – also originated much earlier, in the 19th Century. There are a number of different suggestions as to its origins, possibly Romany, possibly referring to Newgate prison in London.

Half of the world is now supposedly in ‘lockdown’ and ‘stir-crazy’ is used daily by people to describe the effect that the new term of ‘self-isolation’ is having on them after weeks of the experience.

But, for Bunker and company, ‘lockdown’ meant an even more repressive regime than the traditional forms of incarceration. For the world today, it can mean having to spend most of the time in your home and only popping out to buy food, to get something from the chemists or have a mere hour’s exercise – three activities in which most prisoners anywhere in the world would be thrilled to participate.

Thinking More About what Incarceration Means

According to a report by the Prison Reform Trust charity, 25% of women and 15% of men in prison report symptoms indicative of psychosis, compared to a rate of around 4% amongst the general public.

Self-inflicted deaths are 8.6 times more likely in prison than in the general population and 70% of people who died by their own hand in jail had already been identified as having mental health needs. Prison suicide rates in the UK are twice as high as the European average: England and Wales had a suicide rate of 11.2 per 10,000 inmates in 2018, compared to a European median of 5.7. Of the prisons inspected in 2016–17, some 40% “had inadequate or no training for prison officers to know when to refer a person for mental health support”. That’s what ‘stir-crazy’ really means.

This month, the Council of Europe has published its annual penal statistics which show that the UK is behind only Russia and Turkey in Europe in the numbers of people it jails: Russia has 563,166 inmates, Turkey 269,806, and the UK 91,724 – compared to other western European nations such as France (70,059), Germany (63,643), Italy (60,125) and Spain (58,983).

The UK has a much higher rate of people in prison per head of population than almost all of Europe (138 per 100,000 in England and Wales and 146 in Scotland, compared to an average of 106 in the rest of Europe).

There have already been suggestions that people in England and Wales nearing the end of their sentences might be released early and that the police and prosecuting authorities could seek to punish non-violent offences with non-custodial punishments. All of which would indicate that many in authority realise that locking people up – unless they are likely to cause physical harm to others – is not the only way to ensure a civilised society.

Now that the world is in ‘lockdown’ or ‘stir-crazy’ and realising what it is like not to be able to go out at night, see friends, visit pubs and cafes, cinemas and theatres, dance in clubs, travel and so on, will this mean that – at the end of it all – there will be a much greater understanding of what a real lockdown is like and how years in prison can really drive people mad?

When – or if – we return to ‘normal’ life, will people remember what it was like? Will those who repeatedly call for “life to mean life” sentences pause for a moment to think what that means? 

There are already those who believe that, in the aftermath of COVID-19, there will be a greater appreciation of the NHS by those politicians who have sought to undermine and privatise much of it. There have also been suggestions that the BBC, which has kept the nation informed, may also secure a reprieve from the current attempts to dismantle it for the benefit of the Government-supporting, privately-owned media companies.

Could the realisation that being unable to move and mix freely can be a grim and testing experience lead to a world in which people examine whether locking up – or locking down – individuals for years and years is something that should only ever be done as a last resort? And that there is something shameful in the fact that – at a time when we are unable to watch or participate in sport – the only league in which the UK consistently outdoes all its western European rivals is in terms of imprisonment?

Let’s hope.

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