Spark Inside, which provides life-coaching for young people in prison, yesterday (7 October, 2021) launched a project to highlight the urgent need for tailored wellbeing provision for young people in custody. A recent damning report by the MPs’ Justice Select Committee argued that prisons’ mental health provision needs “root and branch reform”. Over the next six months, Spark Inside will gather evidence as part of the #beingwellbeingequal campaign. They will hear from key voices in criminal justice, well-respected academics and young people with lived experience.
To kickstart the project, Spark Inside commissioned a public opinion survey. YouGov polled over 1700 people and found that, far from not caring, as is often assumed, most people (72%) believe mental health and wellbeing support should be a priority in prisons. Encouragingly, over 60% of people also said that they believe that rehabilitating prisoners is a key purpose of prison.
Young people’s experiences will be at the heart of the evidence-gathering. Already, powerful personal testimonies have emerged, here we offer a taste of what young people from Leaders Unlocked have told Spark Inside (all names have been changed)
Mo, who is 25 years old, on the impact of prison on their wellbeing…
“In prison you don’t get no help. I can tell you that. With mental health …. you can get drugs faster than you can get help in there and that’s the truth of it.
Like, to me it’s shocking because people with mental health and normal people without mental health are getting treated… less than humans. So why would people want to rehabilitate their self or reform? You are just creating angry men or angry women.”
Rahim, aged 26
‘I’m quite an optimistic person and like, I went into prison thinking that I was mentally strong.… I was in there for over three years when I left prison. But the thing is yeah, I didn’t have a concept or understanding of mental health beforehand because I went into prison as a young man.
What you don’t realise is, is that it slowly breaks you down without you noticing. So, essentially you have to project yourself as a confident person within prison especially, well I can’t speak for a female institution but in a male institution you have to project yourself cos it’s about being masculine. So, you develop a false sense of confidence and you don’t realise that you are no longer confident until you get outside in the real world.
Erm, so, for me, erm I didn’t notice that I was very depressed and very anxious whilst I was in prison. …when I got out of prison I neglected my own physical and mental health, I lost a load of weight… and then also having seen a psychological expert I was diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety so these things I would have never have identified in prison. I felt like a confident male, but then when I left prison it was almost like I was a broken person.’
Spark Inside is committed to better understanding the needs of young Black men in prison, who are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than white people and yet their mental health needs have been found to be even less provided for than the white prison population.
A young man who is 26 years old was asked what wellbeing support he was offered in prison…
“None. To be honest. Um, none. You had a few governors there at the time that were…later, particularly women that were alright… there wasn’t necessarily offering that sort of support but you could talk to them if you wanted to …but other than that they wasn’t like, “Oh if you’re feeling this way …this sort of support that you can go to talk and to… you know let us know how’re you’re feeling so we can make you feel more comfortable.” There was nothing like that.”
Several young men described Covid-19 in prison as one of the worst periods of their mental state. And said they felt depressed during the extreme restrictive regimes of 23-hour lockdown in their cells.
Another young man (26) described what he thinks is needed in prisons to support mental wellbeing…
“I think a lot of people just need someone just to vent to and just, talking to someone is just relieving yourself of the stress. Like they don’t have to solve your problems, but I think just listen to it, just try and help them out a bit more and take your time because there’s gonna be a lot of things going through whoever’s mind at that time, and they might not want to talk about it.
It has to be genuine …people doing their jobs have really gotta care for people that they’re dealing with and have empathy, and have empathy for what’s going on. If you take a genuine interest I think the person can, kind of clock or read that energy and be like this person wants to know so I’m just gonna tell them what’s going on.”
Spark Inside will report on their detailed findings in Spring 2022. We will be putting forward positive policy actions, such as guidance and support for people who work in prisons, to enable young people who leave prison to reach their potential. If you would like to contribute, visit www.sparkinside.org/campaigns and follow #itstime and #beingwellbeingequal on Twitter and social media.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.