The onset of COVID-19 has made an impact on every aspect of our society. But one group in particular is facing real difficulties in coping with the crisis, a group so often ignored by society, and that is people in prison. It is shocking that reportedly up to 60% of prisoners could become infected with COVID-19. A custodial sentence punishes an offender by taking away his or her liberty. But can justice be served if restrictions on a person’s liberty places that individual in mortal danger?
Overcrowding, run-down prison buildings and the close-knit nature of prison itself means that the pandemic has been, and will continue to be, exacerbated for prisoners, prison workers and families connected to these groups. To counter this, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has also announced its intention to temporarily release pregnant prisoners, but, at the time of writing, very few pregnant women have actually been released. The MoJ has also said that to assist with social distancing, around 4000 prisoners will be released early on licence – yet by mid-April only a small number of prisoners had been released; highlighting a lack of urgency in providing care, safety and protection for prisoners.
The pandemic is also likely to exacerbate the mental health problems of prisoners. The uncertainty of this situation will leave many prisoners more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, triggering incidents of self-harm and paranoia, with isolation intensifying the symptoms of trauma. With experienced officers leaving the prison service in large numbers, those that remain are struggling to curtail social interaction – particularly as many prisons officers themselves have had to self-isolate – it has become incredibly challenging for prison officers to identify and respond appropriately to the individual needs of inmates; particularly those with underlying health problems.
Despite the above, there are still some positives. In these challenging times a group of young people from social justice charity Peer Power Youth in London, working in partnership with NHS England, have produced something extraordinary. In an act of collective compassion, they have created an educational video for young people in custody. The young people from the charity explained what the COVID-19 pandemic is and provided support and guidance on how to stay safe in prison. These young people – with experience of care and/or criminal justice – know what it feels like to be in distressing situations, how to offer empathy and overcome types of adversity. All of this is demonstrated in the video they have produced.
Dr Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, and a member of the Institute for Social Responsibility.
Dr Michael Richards is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care, and Deputy Director: Centre for Arts and Wellbeing at Edge Hill University
John Marsden is a Senior Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy at Edge Hill University .
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