Experience of prison lockdown
Donna Gipson and Dr Lucy Wainwright from EP: IC Consultants have immersed themselves in working with prison communities throughout the pandemic and noticed they were not part of conversations in mainstream media and the wider community, despite the huge challenges faced. In order to raise awareness of the challenges people in prison faced during lockdown EP: IC invited them to send a message on a postcard to the world. Paula Harriott, supporter of the EP: IC collective and the Prisoner Involvement Lead at Prison Reform Trust shares her reflections on prisons and lockdown.
March 23rd 2020 will forever be marked in the history books as the day the entire UK population went into the first national lockdown as we sought to restrict the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Looking back know, I can remember the palpable anxiety I felt then, as we entered into a life of staying home to save lives. The restrictions brought about new emotional challenges such as coping with different worries, feeling alone and disruption to contact with family. These triggered conversations in the community about people feeling imprisoned and being held captive – and people questioned the legitimacy and necessity of stringent lockdown measures, given the damage it was causing to individuals and families.
In my mind I started to re-live memories of my own incarceration between 2004-2008. Every day, the agonies of stress, guilt and anxiety were my constant daily companions. The pain of separation from the ones I loved never abated. Being deprived of contact with my kids felt like a sharp dagger like pain in my heart and this grew as time went on. But all these emotions were made worse by the iron door of my cell being locked from the outside at 7pm every evening (and most weekends whilst at HMP Brockhill in the early days of my sentence).
Bang up was claustrophobic and the isolation made me feel like I was going mad. I found myself talking to myself or imagined myself elsewhere – anywhere but in prison. I forced myself to sleep to escape the panic at the loss of control and removal of my freedom. It’s been 13 years since my release and my mental health has still not fully recovered from this confinement. I still don’t shut the bedroom door – ever. I open windows constantly. I feel anxious if hemmed in. I can breakdown emotionally for no real reason and especially when confronted with the pain of my children.
This is my lived experience of confinement, and for the last year people in prison have been locked up like never before.
Over the last year, I have heard people in the community talk about the lockdown, stating that they were feeling like they were in prison. I would smile and, at first, I welcomed the conversation. As the lead for prisoner involvement at the Prison Reform Trust and a former prisoner, part of my role is public speaking and public education. This presented an opportunity to come together can begin to consider solutions to the problem of prisons being largely ineffective in rehabilitation.
Prisons left in the dark
Many social issues have come to light in the last year. Racism has been brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement and people of colour mobilising to highlight injustice. Food poverty was brought to our awareness by the footballer Marcus Rashford, who used his own lived experience of hunger to pressure the Government on a dramatic U turn on free school meals. It felt like the time was ripe for a conversation about the role of prisons in our lives and for a more sophisticated discussion about imprisonment. I wondered if we would start to talk about the conditions in prison, because even the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke made his views clear in his exit speech in 2020
“The challenges faced by many prisons, and the systemic weaknesses that we identified in some key areas, will not have gone away because of the health emergency. When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that adversely affect the safety and decency of our prisons, the opportunity they offer for rehabilitation and their contribution to reducing reoffending.” ( Chief Inspector of Prisons’ final annual report – positive signs but many deep problems will remain after COVID-19 (justiceinspectorates.gov.uk)
But no, the conversation never happened and in the meantime the crisis in our prisons was ignored by the public. The Government failed to fully act on advice from its own health experts to order early release of vulnerable and nonviolent prisoners to make space in overcrowded prisons where social distancing is almost impossible.
Postcards giving prisoners a voice
Since March 2020, people in prison have been experiencing dramatically changed regimes, tantamount to lengthy periods of solitary confinement and just recently we marked the one year anniversary as a day of reflection.
When we reflect on prison communities over the past 12 months, virtually without a break, family and legal visits have been suspended meaning that children with a mum or dad in prison haven’t hugged them, a partner hasn’t seen their loved ones – a person in prison might not have seen a friend – for over a year. Education has stopped, libraries, and workshops have been closed; courses and sentence planning have been placed on hold. People are confined to cells for over 22 hours per day. The government’s response to the pandemic in prisons has turned them into human holding pens, largely devoid of constructive activity and meaningful social connection, the things we know are needed for rehabilitation. Research and evidence on long term solitary confinement clearly links enduring mental health and trauma as consequences to the experience.
Yet there is relative silence about prison and the pandemic. That is why I am proud EP: IC has opened up conversations with prison communities to mark a year in lockdown and invited The Prison Reform Trust’s Prisoner Policy Network to participate. I am proud that we, as allies in this sector, have not been silent bystanders. Instead, the postcards initiative gave an opportunity for people in prison to send a message to the world to mark the lockdown anniversary; to draw attention to the conditions, to damaged mental health, to resilience and positive energy, to the fact that people in prison are part of our community albeit disconnected from us by a wall. Their postcard messages are heartrending, uplifting, emotional and sometimes painful to read. But their lived experience is a wisdom that, if we really listen, could actually help us ‘Build Back Better’ following a year in lockdown.
You can see a selection of postcards in the gallery above. To see the full set and read the varied experiences of so many people who have been in prison over the last year, go to this page on the EP:IC website.