Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: A Record of Our Own - Lockdown Experiences of Ethnic Minority Prisoners

31st March 2021

This report by the Zahid Mubarek Trust (ZMT), in partnership with POPS and the Traveller Movement is an account of the challenges faced by minority ethnic prisoners in prison in England and Wales because of the lockdown measures employed by the prison authorities to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in prisons. These restrictions saved lives but made incarceration even more challenging for prisoners.

The report is based on questionnaires and unstructured submissions made by 87 prison leavers and the family members of prisoners from a minority ethnic background. The sample experienced incarceration in 29 prisons and the report covered conditions during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic from March to August 2020. Below is a summary of four areas of the report’s findings.


Education & Employment

Participants who had been classified as essential workers and thus were able to continue to work were very glad of the structure and variety it brought into their daily routines. However, their earnings were still very low and their work commitments meant that many missed out on access to amenities like phone calls on a regular basis. All prisoners reported difficulties affording the increased costs of incarceration during a pandemic: phone credit, canteen credit and hygiene products. Peer support and equality officer positions were not classed as essential work which caused consternation among many prisoners. There was also many reports of favouritism and discrimination in prison authorities’ decision making over the distribution of essential work.

All participants reported a complete cessation of face-to-face teaching and instead prisoners were provided with in-cell activity packs. While some prisoners found them engaging and a useful way to pass the time 33% of prisoners did not engage with the materials at all. Two Traveller prisoners said the material was not culturally relevant and accessible and a dyslexic prisoner said the material was not appropriate to his needs. A number of prisoners reported that their sentence progression and parole processes were hampered by a lack of access to education and employment opportunities.


Out of Cell Time & Family Contact

A variety of responses surrounding access to out of cell time were collected. 76% of prison leavers said that they only spent between 30-45 minutes out of their cells each day, until the end of May. 21% of prison leavers reported that they were getting no more than 15 minutes out of cell for the first few weeks of the pandemic. A small number of participants who had been in open prisons described a more relaxed experience with more access to time outdoors. Many prisoners said that lockdown conditions were eased somewhat during May 2020. However, this was unevenly applied. Several visitors expressed frustration with their strict confinement and the lack of access to family visits given the relaxing of restrictions on the general public.

To compensate for the lack of in-person visits, prisons took steps to enable prisoners to stay in contact with their families. Different prisons used different methods. Some reduced the price of calls, others provided more in-cell telephones. Some allowed the use of mobile phones to enable teleconferencing in cells while others set up a secure room with a laptop that prisoners could book. Prisoners said that while these concessions did not adequately compensate for the lack of physical visits, they were an important source of comfort for many. However, the utility of these provisions was undermined by the burdensome cost of phone calls in many prisons especially for prisoners unwilling or unable to ask for their families’ assistance in purchasing phone credit. Lack of access to in-cell telephones also created barriers. While HMPPS claims that 60% of cells have an in-cell telephone, only 19% of prison leaver participants reported having access to one. Having to share phones in common areas often in a very limited timeframe made it difficult to conduct satisfying phone calls with family outside. 55% of prison leaver participants said they had significantly less contact with their loved ones during lockdown.


Mental Health

The lockdown restrictions in prisons in England and Wales caused and exacerbated mental health issues. 55% of prison leavers reported increased stress, anxiety or depression, two-thirds of whom did not experience these feeling prior to the pandemic. Several participants said they considered suicide or self-harming or witnessed incidents in which others did so.

68% of family member participants reported feeling increased stress, anxiety, insomnia, or depression as they tried to cope with additional pressures associated with the prison lockdown. All participants who had pre-existing mental health issues said that their symptoms got worse after lockdown began.

Prisoners felt that more access to phone calls, chaplaincy services, peer support and mental health checks by prison officers would have helped with mental health issues in prisons during lockdown. None of the participants were aware of any specialist mental health services being delivered in the period under review and only 15% of prison leavers said they were aware that Listeners (prisoners trained by the Samaritans to provide support to other prisoners) were still operating during the first few months of the lockdown.
 

Complaints

Some participants described experiencing or witnessing incidents of racism, prejudicial treatment and unfair use of discretionary powers during lockdown. In this respect, ethnic minority prisoners’ experiences during the pandemic may have reinforced existing feelings that the prison system does not treat them equally.

While numerous participants highlighted instances of inconsistent or discriminatory treatment, only one was prepared to use the complaints procedure to challenge this. Almost all of those who decided not to submit a complaint said this was because they believed making a complaint would not make any difference and/or that they would suffer prejudicial treatment from staff if they did so. One respondent also noted that the Covid-19 restrictions meant that it was logistically difficult to make a complaint during lockdown.


Policy Recommendations

The report makes clear that the hardships of prison lockdown due to COVID-19 have exacerbated issues of overcrowding, lack of access to education, employment, healthcare and amenities, discrimination and mental health issues that existed before the pandemic. The report produces an array of policy recommendations, including:

  • The roll-out of digital technologies in prisons should be accelerated to ensure that all prisoners have in-cell telephones and that there is frequent access to good quality video call facilities. Video calls should be available at times that enable more families to take part (e.g. evening and weekend) and consideration should be given as to how to include families who do not have access to video calling equipment.
  • Counterbalancing measures to compensate prisoners for loss of time out of cells, family visits and temporary release (ROTL) should be brought in immediately and should seek to meet prisoners’ individual and cultural needs (e.g. making more effective use of temporary release schemes; allowing phone credits to be swapped for credit at the canteen if requested; giving greater access to compassionate video calls based on a broader understanding of the criteria that underpins the term ‘compassionate’; etc.).
  • Access to mental health support, including specialist mental health services and peer to peer support initiatives, should be maintained and enhanced throughout lockdown. All those involved in delivering these services should be considered essential workers.
  • Action plans need to be implemented to address longstanding inequality issues in prisons, including the poorer perceptions ethnic minority prisoners have in comparison to white counterparts regarding their treatment in areas such as relationships, complaints, behaviour management and healthcare.
     

Read ‘A Record of Our Own’ in full on the ZMT website here.

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