UK prisoners ‘traumatised’ by Covid solitary confinement, study says | Prisons and probation

A regime of mass solitary confinement imposed in UK jails during the pandemic has turbocharged a prisons mental health crisis and put the safety of the public at risk, according to one of the biggest prisoner experience studies ever conducted.

Based on a detailed survey of more than 1,400 prisoners in 10 jails, carried out by teams of peer researchers who were themselves prisoners, the study gives unprecedented insight into emergency lockdown conditions introduced in UK prisons when it was feared they would become hotspots for the Covid-19 virus.

It found 85% of prisoners reported being locked in their cells for more than 23 hours a day for often months at a time, while their access to rehabilitation programmes, family visits and regular exercise was largely stopped. This in effect subjected inmates to “one of the most extreme confinement regimes in the world”, the study says.

Prisoners describe how Covid solitary confinement affected their mental health – video

It vividly records the “widespread trauma” inflicted on prisoners as the extended isolation and boredom of lengthy lockups turned prison life into “groundhog day” and took its toll on inmates’ mental wellbeing. There are distressing accounts of self-harm, suicide, suicidal thoughts, widespread despair and spiralling anxiety.

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

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

Mark Johnson, the founder of User Voice, the charity that carried out the peer research for the study, said the consequence of the prison lockdown regime would be a “mental health timebomb” as traumatised and volatile ex-offenders re-enter society without having received rehabilitation or support.

“Does an underfunded and understaffed criminal justice system which simply locks people up and precipitates mental health crises actually cost more in the long run? If prisons are just about locks and keys and offer nothing more, how safe are prisoners and the public when they are released?” asks Johnson in the study foreword.

The Ministry of Justice has defended its Covid regime against charges it was disproportionate. It says that by June this year at total of 200 prisoners had died within 60 days of a positive Covid-19 test or had Covid-19 listed as a contributory factor in their death – far fewer than the 2,700 potential victims modelled by Public Health England.

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 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 prisoners disagreed, saying verbal bullying and coercion increased but had gone largely unreported and the risk of riots and disorder had heightened.

Most prisoners felt jail conditions had stayed the same or got worse since the pandemic, with Covid used as “an excuse” to mask a staffing and resources crisis. “The general consensus … was lockdown restrictions were not a historical aberration … but were about to become the new normal for those in prison,” the study says.

Overseen by Queen’s University Belfast academics and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the study was based on surveys and focus groups at a geographically diverse range of facilities from high-security jails to open prisons, women’s prisons and young offender institutes. The surveys were carried out between June 2021 and February with the cooperation of the prison authorities.

The findings were not universally negative, with prisoners praising instances where the authorities responded rapidly to outbreaks of Covid, for example, or the introduction in some jails of phones in cells or video links to try to compensate for the loss of family visits.

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

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