Covid solitary confinement ignited UK prisons mental health crisis, study says | Prisons and probation

A regime of mass solitary confinement imposed in UK prisons during the pandemic has fueled a mental health crisis in prisons and endangered public safety, according to one of the largest prisoner experience surveys ever conducted.

Based on a detailed survey of more than 1,400 inmates in 10 prisons conducted by teams of fellow researchers who were inmates themselves, the study provides unprecedented insight into the emergency lockdown conditions introduced in UK prisons when it was feared they would become hot spots for the Covid -19 virus.

The survey found that 85% of inmates reported being locked up in their cells for more than 23 hours a day, often for months at a time, while their access to rehabilitation programs, family visits and regular exercise was largely cut off. This effectively subjected prisoners to “one of the most extreme incarceration regimes in the world,” the study said.

It provides a vivid picture of the “widespread trauma” inflicted on inmates when the prolonged isolation and boredom of prolonged incarceration turned prison life into “groundhog day” and took its toll on inmates’ mental well-being. There are disturbing stories of self-harm, suicide, suicidal thoughts, widespread despair and increasing anxiety.

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Depression and anxiety scores among inmates increased dramatically under lockdown and were nearly five times higher than in the general population, the study found. Using standardized mental health measures, more than a third of inmates scored at the level of severe anxiety disorder.

While the study says the strict conditions “probably saved lives” at the height of the pandemic, it adds that in many prisons aspects of the regime are still largely in place despite the lifting of Covid restrictions in the rest of society. . In February, half of the inmates reported still being locked up for 23 hours a day.

Mark Johnson, the founder of User Voice, the charity that conducted the peer review for the study, said the impact of the jail lock regime would be a “mental health time bomb” as traumatized and fugitive ex-offenders are reintroduced. entering society without receiving rehabilitation or support.

“Does an underfunded and understaffed criminal justice system that simply incarcerate people and accelerate mental health crises cost more in the long run? If prisons are just locks and keys and offer nothing more, how safe are inmates and the public when they are released?” asks Johnson in the study’s preface.

The Justice Department has defended its Covid regime against allegations that it was disproportionate. It says that as of June this year, a total of 200 inmates had died within 60 days of a positive Covid-19 test or that Covid-19 was listed as a contributing factor to their deaths – far fewer than the 2,700 potential victims modeled by Public Health England.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our tough but necessary action during the pandemic has saved the lives of many staff and inmates – and we have quickly implemented measures such as video calls and education in the cell in recognition of the impact. We continue to increase mental health support and improve staff training, and our prison strategy provides a clear vision to provide all offenders with the education, skills and support they need to get back on track.”

The study challenges official claims that while lockdown conditions were necessarily draconian, they also reduced violence and succeeded in “bringing peace” to prisons. More than half of the inmates disagreed, saying that verbal bullying and coercion has increased, but has largely gone unreported and the risk of rioting and disorder has increased.

Most inmates felt prison conditions had remained the same or had gotten worse since the pandemic, with Covid being used as “an excuse” to mask a personnel and resource crisis. “The general consensus… was that lockdown restrictions were not a historic aberration… but were about to become the new norm for those in prison,” the study says.

The research was overseen by academics from Queen’s University in Belfast and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was based on surveys and focus groups in a geographically diverse range of facilities, from high-security prisons to open prisons, women’s prisons and youth delinquent institutions. The investigations were conducted between June 2021 and February with the cooperation of the prison authorities.

The findings were not generally negative, with inmates praising cases where authorities responded quickly to outbreaks of Covid, for example, or the introduction in some prisons of cell phones or video links to try to make up for the loss of family visits.

Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the study confirmed anecdotal reports about prison conditions over the past two and a half years. “The lockdown in prisons has been both more extreme and much longer than in the community. The impact on mental health has been disastrous and rehabilitation work has stalled.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted at 116 123 or email [email protected] You can contact Mind mental health charity by calling 0300 123 3393 or visit

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