More than a third of prisoners showed symptoms of severe anxiety disorder following lockdown measures introduced during the Covid pandemic, research has indicated.
The report Coping with Covid in Prisons found that measures introduced in response to the pandemic led to periods of prolonged solitary confinement across the prison population, resulting in dramatically increased levels of anxiety and depression.
The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was a partnership between the ex-offender-led charity User Voice and social scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Nearly 100 serving prisoners were trained in research methods to survey their peers during the research.
Over the 18-month project, these volunteers completed over 1,400 surveys with fellow prisoners across 11 prisons in England and Wales.
The prisons which participated were given institutional anonymity.
Key findings of the report included:
– 85% of prisoners surveyed were confined to cells for 23 hours for the majority of the lockdown period.
– 59% of prisoners surveyed had not had a single visit with family during the Covid lockdown.
– Standard screening tools suggest depression and anxiety scores are almost five times higher than the standard for the general population.
– More than one out of three prisoners were scoring at the level of “severe anxiety disorder” indicating high levels of post-traumatic stress.
– Two thirds of survey respondents said that access to mental health support had worsened, instead of improving, during the lockdown.
– One out of five respondents thought that violence had reduced in the prisons because of the lockdown.
User Voice’s founder and CEO, Mark Johnson, said: “When almost no one was able to get into prisons, we were able to conduct one of the largest studies of prisoner experiences.
“This research has been led by prisoners, using our innovative approach developed over the past 15 years and now validated by academics.
“The report reveals one of the darkest and most hidden results of the pandemic, the true effects of extreme lockdown and confinement on prisoners and ultimately, on the public.
“It shows that we need to talk about criminal justice. Are prisons just for punishment or are they failing prisoners and the public if they don’t offer the support which leads to rehabilitation?”
Professor Shadd Maruna, Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Prisons were in crisis before the pandemic and, remarkably, some voices have claimed that life in prison has actually improved because of the Covid lockdown.
“Our research definitively demonstrates that the social climate in prison has become dramatically worse after the lockdown, and a great deal of work is going to be needed to restore a sense of trust and legitimacy among the incarcerated.
“Peer-led models, like the kind that drove this research project, have the potential to do just that if implemented correctly.”
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our tough but necessary action during the pandemic saved the lives of many staff and prisoners – and we quickly rolled out measures such as video calls and in-cell education in recognition of the impact.
“We continue to increase mental health support and improve training for staff, and our Prisons Strategy sets a clear vision to provide all offenders with the education, skills and support they need to get back on the straight and narrow.”
The research has been welcomed by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC).
IAPDC chair Juliet Lyon said: “For people effectively held in a prison within a prison, confined to small, poorly ventilated cells for up to 23 hours a day for over two years, these are still desperate times.
“The punishment of imprisonment is loss of liberty — not permanently impaired mental and physical health and not, at worst, loss of life.”