I’ve just been released from prison after two-and-a-half years. I was expecting my first steps back into the outside world to feel something akin to Dorothy’s full technicolour experience in The Wizard of Oz. But it hasn’t felt quite like that being released into a pandemic. For the most part, I’ve exchanged one lockdown for another – though I prefer this one.
From inside prison, I followed how the UK has coped with the pandemic. There has been precious little attention paid to how the crisis has played out for prisoners. Early last year, concerns were raised that Covid-19 could ravage prisons in the same way it had care homes, but such concerns were fleeting. The government announced an early release scheme for up to 4,000 prisoners, then quietly cancelled it a few months later, having released just 316 prisoners. Earlier this year, the prisons watchdog reported that nearly a year of lockdown has led to a disturbing decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing.
Over the course of the pandemic, there were two major coronavirus outbreaks in my prison. During the first, infected prisoners were wandering about the wing at the same time as those who were supposed to be shielding. Overcrowding meant that when my elderly cellmate tested positive and became ill, I was simply locked in the cell with him for a fortnight to isolate. For the best part of a week, I felt a lot like his carer and was genuinely unsure as to whether he was going to die or not. The second outbreak saw a quarter of prisoners test positive.
‘Being in prison is like lockdown on steroids.’
Whilst there have been over 100 Covid-19 deaths in prisons so far, the mass death that was feared hasn’t come to pass. Some of the actions taken by prison staff – such as splitting the wings up into bubbles – have undoubtedly saved lives. But this isn’t a success story. The lower-than-expected death rate was only achieved by a heavily restricted prison regime – ten months of 22-23.5 hour-a-day lockdown.
That’s ten months of no purposeful activity: no education or workshops, no offender courses, no access to the gym, no visits for most of the year. For ten months, we were getting only an hour or so a day out of our cells. And because of the weather, we often weren’t even getting that – try walking around a small concrete yard in the pouring rain with no coat.
Time out of our cells was even more limited when we had outbreaks in the prison. With a limited number of phones on the wing, it was often a choice between using the time to make a phone call or to have a shower. We had difficulty getting books sent in for about two months, as gate staff were under the mistaken impression that they were entitled to refuse parcels due to the pandemic. There was a period of nearly three months when both paracetamol and hand sanitiser were unavailable.
Being incarcerated during Covid-19 was horrifying – but pandemic or not, the experience of being in prison is like lockdown on steroids – and the conditions ruin lives. If you’d like a taster, go to your bathroom, lock the door, climb into your bathtub and stay there for 23 hours.
Our prisons are essentially minimum cost warehouses. Some were built in the Victorian era and are no longer fit for human inhabitation. Rates of suicide and self-harm are shockingly high. In my first prison, I simply wouldn’t have believed the levels of self-harm if I hadn’t seen it for myself. In both of the prisons I’ve been in, prisoners’ psychological issues were largely ignored. Despite this, the government advocates for new super prisons so even more people can be locked up – as if the American penal system should be taken as a model rather than a warning.
‘The toll taken on prisoners’ mental and physical health is yet to realised.’
Despite its empty claims of ‘rehabilitation’, which is really just a box-ticking exercise, the prison system really doesn’t care what happens to you after your release. I am extremely fortunate to have the support I do from family and friends – but many are not so lucky. They’re just sent out the door with a travel warrant and the £46 discharge grant.
One prisoner I know who suffered with long-term depression was released into the pandemic and allocated a hostel place three hours away from his family in an area he’d never been to before – despite the prison and probation service acknowledging that social isolation would make him more likely to re-offend. Another prisoner with severe learning disabilities was released over the past year with nothing but £46 and a tent. This lack of support means that many prisoners are released into homelessness; while the stigma of a prison sentence is a serious barrier to future employment.
For those still inside, the restricted regime is going to carry on for at least the next six months – and potentially for the entire year. The toll this has taken on prisoners’ mental and physical health is yet to be fully realised. With offender courses not running and contact with outside agencies limited, it’s even harder than it was before the pandemic for prisoners to progress through sentence plans and to prepare for release. If there is supposed to be any point to a prisoner’s incarceration beyond simple punishment, what that point is is less clear than ever.
‘The men and women in our prisons are human beings.’
The media dehumanises and vilifies prisoners, just as they do immigrants and benefit claimants. They tell us that we need to be tougher on crime as a society; that our justice system is ‘too soft’ – despite the inhumane conditions prisoners are made to experience, the fact that the UK is giving out longer sentences than ever before and that we have the highest prison population in western Europe.
Prisons are full of all kinds of people: some are wrongfully convicted; some should have been given non-custodial sentences; some made a mistake and are remorseful; some have done terrible things – but, even then, few are truly irredeemable. Many prisoners have extremely difficult backgrounds. Once shuttled in and out of care, now shuttled in and out of prison, many have endured lifetimes of deprivation and abuse.
The public doesn’t hear about the acts of kindness and common decency you see every day in prison, just as you’d see in any community. Prisoners look out for each other, educate each other and care for each other. I remember a group of quite laddish men who went out of their way to ensure an autistic young man wouldn’t be taken advantage of by some of the more unscrupulous inmates, because even they could see that he really shouldn’t have been in prison. You probably didn’t know that when the nation was clapping for carers, we all joined in too. To report such things would be to remind you that the men and women in our prisons are human beings.
‘We treat justice as a zero-sum game.’
People are more than their worst actions. As soon as you argue it’s okay to treat some people inhumanely, you become part of the problem. And the left can be as bad as the right. We recognise that morality is not always black and white, and laud complex characters in fiction, yet we are sanctimonious, judgemental, even vengeful when it comes to real life. We’re moved by cases of miscarriages of justice when they’re portrayed in Hollywood films, and are fleetingly outraged when one is reported in the news, but quickly forget the impact they had on us. We treat justice as a zero-sum game, in which any kindness towards the accused or convicted must be bad for the victim.
We tell ourselves that prison could never happen to us or anybody we know and care about – but it can. What matters is how we treat people when they are at their lowest, whether they deserve to be there or not.
As told to Sophie K Rosa via correspondence.
Sam, whose name has been changed to protect anonymity, was an inmate at a UK prison.
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Novara Media.