‘It’s like going through the pandemic locked in your bathroom’ – the brutal reality of life in prison during lockdown and the charities determined to keep supporting those affected.
Recent data from Public Health England has shown that 530 people have tested positive for coronavirus in prisons, with 23 deaths inside and 21 on probation.
Although these figures are lower than anticipated, it is estimated that ‘possible cases’ may be as high as 1,385.
But even for those who have managed to avoid the virus, the stark reality of life under coronavirus restrictions is a real threat to the wellbeing and mental health of many individuals.
Vicki Cardwell, CEO of Spark Inside, a charity offering help for young people in prison, told NewStart: ‘Our trained life coaches work with young men in prison to help them change their mindset and achieve their potential.
‘The personal growth we see in normal times is incredible. However, like many vital services, we’ve not been able to get into prisons during the lockdown.
‘We’re really worried about young people in jail who have had no visits from their family or loved ones, no proper education and no gym.
‘Prisons have largely been overlooked during the pandemic and the mental health toll for young people will be felt way beyond the lifting of restrictions.’
The current prison population stands at 79,600, a reduction of 4,400 since 13th March, mainly due to the impact of the pandemic on Court proceedings and of the 4,000 people the Ministry of Justice deemed eligible for early release, only 242 people have been released so far.
The challenges are undeniable, and for those working tirelessly to support inmates and their families, innovation is key.
Cardwell added: ‘In order to respond as best we can we have been creative and resourceful.
‘We’re working with prison officers – away from the prison gates – to support them as they go through a stressful time. We believe that by supporting officers the benefit will be felt for the people they guard and care for.
‘The early release scheme really amounted to very little. Nonetheless, we’ve gone out of our way to provide virtual and telephone support for young men leaving prison and starting again in acutely uncertain times. We know this makes a difference.’
Another organisation that has been working tirelessly during lockdown is The Shannon Trust.
The Shannon Trust aims to help people in prison with low literacy levels. Now more than ever, with family visits cancelled and a huge digital divide between prisons and the outside world (only 27 of 120 establishments have so far installed video calling), these skills are crucial to survive the ordeal of lockdown.
Kerryn Huck, national service delivery manager for The Shannon Trust, said: ‘We haven’t been into prisons since March 18th.
‘Instead, we’ve been sending in reading books for those of lower literacy levels, we’ve sent in 4 activity packs to every prison, and we’ve been going on the National Prison Radio to communicate with our mentors and learners so they’re don’t feel cut off.
‘We’re doing as much as we can, writing newsletters and encouraging people to write to us.
‘We’ve been working on a worst-case scenario basis, and have been trying to work out how we can change our approach, train mentors in different and safer ways and come up with creative solutions to keep supporting people digitally.’
The current situation is bleak for those behind bars, and with no end in sight and no tangible sense of when restrictions can be lifted, it is clear that people are suffering.
The heart-breaking reality of not being in touch with family, as well as the long-term implications of lost mentoring and education opportunities is a lot to bear.
As Huck said: ‘It’s so important to remember the humans behind the statistics and the ‘prison’ label. They are people with loved ones who are as scared as we are by the pandemic, and they deserve respect and care as much as anyone else in society.’
Further information on Spark Inside and The Shannon Trust can be found at https://www.sparkinside.org/ and https://www.shannontrust.org.uk/
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