People in prison have been particularly affected by the pandemic, experiencing changes to regimes and increased isolation.
Movement in prison has been severely restricted with some people having to spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, while other are confined to landing or wing ‘bubbles’. This has affected people's opportunities to exercise, take part in meaningful activity or socialise with other residents. On top of that, many have worried about their loved ones outside, with bans on family and social visits for much of the year. Some have had to cope with grieving on their own after the death of family members.
In our volunteers’ conversations with people in prison there were two key themes: isolation from increased cell time, and uncertainty about future visits and release dates.
Isolation from increased cell time
Volunteers reported that callers in prison most commonly raised concerns about the changes to their routine, in particular being confined to their cell for 23 hours a day. People in prison had significantly reduced opportunities for meaningful activity such as recreation, workshops and work. In many prisons, visits from family weren’t possible and even contact via telephone was limited for many. Our data from the Listener scheme also highlights an increase in concerns relating to the staff or regime compared to the previous year (20% vs 17%).
Volunteers reported that loneliness among people in prison intensified as a result of this lack of meaningful activity or connection. A third of calls to the dedicated prisons helpline in England and Wales were about loneliness and isolation, which is an increase compared to the previous year (32% vs 27%), and our Listeners also reported an increase in concerns about this (16% vs 9%).
By contrast, there were fewer contacts than last year from people in prison about bullying, being in prison for the first time or facing problems with other people in prison. This reflects how changes to regime have affected the causes of distress.
Lots of calls from prisoners about isolation, lack of activities and no visits. This is badly affecting their mental health and wellbeing.
Uncertainty about future visits and release dates
Volunteers reported that people in prison have faced increased concerns about the future, with key dates such as visits from family and release from prison being left in limbo. The increased strain on relationships with relatives who they have had little contact with for the last year has affected the wellbeing of people in prison.
Throughout the pandemic, volunteers told us that callers from prison have also spoken about anxiety and uncertainty about the future relating to legal processes being delayed. This has meant some people’s release dates and home visits were postponed, causing distress. Some people in prison have worried about access to housing and employment on release, and that access to support services outside of prison may not be available once released into the community.
I have spoken to multiple prisoners who cannot be released because they have nowhere to live when they get out as halfway housing has been pared back.