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Coping with COVID in prison
Peer research with 1,600 people in prison reveals the fully impact of living through the pandemic inside.

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Widespread trauma

Yesterday (14 June 2022), User Voice and Queen’s University Belfast, published their report on the largest research into the impact of COVID-19 on people in prison. Peer researchers gathered the views and experiences of over 1,600 people across 9 prisons.

The team behind the report will be publishing an executive summary and accompanying video too. Some of the main findings are summarised below.

COVID responsivity

The research found that participants initially appreciated HMPPS’ ‘Covid-responsivity’ efforts, but quickly became frustrated by  inconsistent implementation. Respondents reported that Covid-responsive measures varied between prisons, and from one wing to another. Participants considered staff to be the primary source of contagion risk, yet in their view restrictions were implemented according to security-focused staff needs, rather than being based on prisoner welfare.

Inconsistent Covid-responsivity, and harsh restrictions led to ‘Covid-concealment’ or prisoners’ failing to report symptoms or close-contacts due to fear of the harsh restrictions they would face. The research found that failure to provide consistent, logical and compassionate ways of tackling Covid actually resulted in increased risk.

Groundhog day

Around 85% of the 1421 survey respondents experienced 23-hour lockdown during the pandemic, with 80% still spending just two hours or less out of cell on a normal day at the time of data collection (primarily summer and early autumn of 2021). Participants said the hardest parts of lockdown as the length of time in their cells; boredom and lack of activities; cessation of visits; loss of socialisation with their peers, alongside the impacts on their health and their relationships with prison staff.
Prison life became ‘Groundhog Day’, with every day feeling uneventful and ‘endless.’ The cancellation of almost all resettlement work made it hard for people to progress through their sentences making people worried about when they would be released and what help they would receive.

Findings

Other key issues highlighted by researchers included the impact on connections with family and friends and the significant and ongoing impact on mental health. As well as recording people’s lived experiences, the research also used standardised mental health surveys to record the very substantial rise in depression and other mental health conditions. The average Patient Health Questionnaire-9 score among the peer survey sample was 13.9, at the high end of “moderate depression” and five times higher than the population norm for this measure of 2.91. Around 29% of the sample showed indications of ‘severe’ depression.

Differences in coping

The researchers looked in detail at how experiences of lockdown varied. Unsurprisingly, the opportunity to maintain employment and leave their cells for several hours a day helped people cope significantly better than those who were stuck in their cells. Those out of their cells for 5+ hours daily scored at the high end of ‘mild depression,’ in comparison to those on 23-hour lockdown, who scored in the ‘moderately severe depression’ category. Cell-sharing was an additional factor impacting the experience of lockdown, with single-celled prisoners reported fewer symptoms
of anxiety.

Longer-term prisoners were found to be better able to cope with lockdown isolation than newer prisoners, while participants with previous mental health diagnoses and neurodiverse identities, experienced deteriorating mental health in comparison to those participants with no previous mental health issues. 
Those from a Muslim faith background suffered higher average rates of both anxiety and depression than those who self-identified as being Christian or having no religion, while focus group discussions raised issues of prejudice and racism minority prisoners felt they faced. Finally, women scored significantly higher on measures of both depression and anxiety.

The myth of violence reduction?

Several participants believed the restrictive regimes implemented during Covidresponsivity were preferable for staff, leading to a reluctance to facilitate a post-Covid regime. A distinct characteristic of the ‘new normal’ was the idea some participants felt that HMPPS wanted to keep lockdowns in place due to reduced levels of violence in prisons what some called the ‘myth of violence reduction’. Certainly, many prison are implementing new regimes which restrict people to their wing or unit much more.

The research found that there was an increase in perceptions of personal safety but only for a minority of prisoners (around 1 in 6). Many people reported that the face of prison violence had changed to more verbal bullying and coercion, and some felt that the lockdown exacerbated the risk of violent outbreaks or ‘rioting’. 

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