The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly focused on hospitals and care homes – but hidden hotspots of the virus such as prisons should not be forgotten as we tackle the outbreak.
As England enters a new “stay alert” phase of lockdown, researchers are predicting a severe and long-lasting impact on our mental health. Teenagers and young adults, in particular, are said to be experiencing a significant impact, with new jobs lost, exams cancelled and colleges and universities shut. Mental health problems for Generation Z are a ticking time bomb.
But, if it’s tough on the outside, imagine what it’s like for those in a ‘double-lockdown’ – the 80,000 people living in prison.
It is hard to overstate the mental health toll of our overcrowded prisons, which are sadly the perfect petri dish for COVID-19. The result? Tens of thousands of people on 23 hour bang-up, face-to-face family visits cancelled, education stopped, chapel closed, gym – an essential mood-lifter and morale booster – off.
The reality of social distancing in prisons is solitary confinement. For an unprecedented amount of time, prisoners are spending almost every waking minute in a space the size of a bathroom with little human contact. Many people in prison and their families are frustrated, tense and anxious.
Self-harm and suicide rates were already intolerably high before the pandemic. Last year, the Ministry of Justice’s own data revealed that one person every eight minutes harms themselves in prison. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, not long ago declared that self- inflicted deaths inside jails are a “scandal” and that “people in the care of the state are dying unnecessarily in preventable circumstances”.
The Coronavirs crisis has brought into sharp relief the problems that many people do not want to think about. With the situation in care homes, we have seen that obfuscation and inaccurate figures get us nowhere. The most recent Public Health England statistics showed that infection rates in prisons – of staff and prisoners – have been hugely under-reported. Official figures had put infections at 300 at the end of last month, but PHE reported an additional 1,800 “possible/probable cases”. The Ministry of Justice has since confirmed 24 deaths in prisons across England and Wales – of 18 prisoners and six staff members. It is anticipated that restrictions will remain in place in prisons until next April to deal with “significant threat levels” from the virus.
Already pressure cookers, the pandemic has turned up the heat in prisons and a path ahead must be found which adequately addresses the mental health impact and trauma of the Coronavirus on the people living and working in prison.
The early release of some prisoners was announced almost a month ago but has been stop-start. Up to 4,000 prisoners (including pregnant women) were expected to be let out early, to ease the pressure on the system during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, one month on, only around 40 prisoners have been released. A separate pre-pandemic early release scheme of around 500 prisoners on curfew was designed to ease the overcrowding, but those plans have also now been shelved.
Whilst releasing these prisoners is vital, it is essential to remember that the real focus must be on those still inside. Maintaining meaningful links, showing people and staff in prison that they are not “out of sight, out of mind” during the COVID-19 months requires a herculean effort.
At Spark Inside – a charity delivering coaching programmes in prisons – we bring in outside expertise to improve the life chances of young men on the landings and wings. Since lockdown, our skilled coaches have been unable to work inside prisons and we have introduced creative ways to carry on – for instance emailing, sending letters, coaching more young men as they leave prison and now offering coaching to prison officers who are at the coalface of this crisis. Many of the prison officers we work with are remarkable and the pressure of the job has reached new levels.
Last week, a Spark Inside coach met with a teenager leaving prison, who he had worked with regularly beforehand in prison. The young man turned 18 shortly before his release and he had big plans to pursue a career in gyms and to keep focused with his boxing – a door that now feels slammed shut. For him, and many young people like him, their dreams are in limbo.
Young people can show remarkable resilience. Before the crisis, one young person told us that coaching had helped him find hope and understand that “things get harder before they get better”. But we know that the mental health toll of weeks of prison lockdown and poor prospects risks long-term damage when people are released. Already stigmatised and excluded from the job market, young men leaving prison face a harder battle. They will need resilience, resources and real support in prison and through the gate.
We need a recovery plan for our prisons. As soon as it is safe, family contact should be resumed, education boosted, and coaching and mentoring, safe gym time, sport and more reintroduced. We must strain every sinew to get services back up and running safely to prevent more long-term damage. This will need investment and a real recognition of the trauma that people living and working in prisons will have experienced. As the Chancellor invests billions in a national recovery, prisons and those who live and work in them need the same recognition.
I believe there is hope. Charities and organisations across the criminal justice system are showing enormous strength to prepare for when we can get back to those we work with in prisons around the country. We will be ready.
Vicki Cardwell is CEO of Spark Inside