'They're going grey in the face': how Covid-19 restrictions are affecting UK inmates

Mattha Busby, Rhi Storer and Eric Allison
·3-min read

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Alison – a nurse at a prison in Wales – has watched the health of the inmates she looks after deteriorate. “You can see it physically,” she said. “They’re going grey in the face and are constantly tired and worn out. They haven’t had any sunlight.”

Related: Covid: prisoner mental health at risk of 'irreparable damage'

In March, when the rest of the country went into lockdown, so did prisons, with inmates confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and curbs placed on exercise and showering. As measures were eased for much of the rest of the population, officials started to slowly unwind restrictions in prisons, however, many limitations remain – including the requirement for visits to be socially distanced and the reduction of education and training opportunities.

“More and more chaps I go and check on are just sleeping, they’re lying on their beds not even reading any more,” said Alison. “I have a chap who is meant to see his mental health worker weekly, but he hasn’t seen him for seven weeks. Many are withdrawing into themselves; it’s almost as if they’re giving up.”

She added that prisoners were suffering from depressive episodes amid heightened anxiety over the health of their family due to the lack of visits. “It’s just a timebomb really.”

Related: As a prison officer, I'm afraid of what Covid restrictions are doing to inmates | Anonymous

On Tuesday the outgoing chief inspector of prisons published his annual report, telling the Guardian that the measures were unsustainable and could cause irreparable damage to inmates’ futures.

Mary, a prisoner at a jail in southern England, said the lockdown has exacerbated many inmates’ pre-existing mental health problems. “An awful lot of women here were suffering daily before lockdown,” she said. “But the restrictions have made their discomfort far more acute and noticeable.”

“The most heartbreaking spectacle was seeing women, who had these issues, denied visits from their children, then, when visits resumed, not being able to touch their offspring. You cannot give solace to such women; you can only listen to their grief.”

David, an inmate in a north-west prison, said the biggest threat in the prison was “physically, from lads-on-lads, as tensions, boredom and frustration gets higher.”

He added: “Having done a lot of prison time, it’s going to spill over. The unseen threat is the impact it’s having on mental health long term. They just can’t cope with it, and we are behind the door to hide it.”

“There just isn’t enough trained staff to deal with mental health issues. I myself, have contemplated taking my own life a number of occasions while this is going on.”

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The daughter of an inmate in the south-west said her father continues to have no access to work or the gym, and that he is only taken outside one or two times a week for half an hour “if the guards can be bothered”.

She visited him for the first time in six months in September. “His new regime is locked in his 4 by 7ft cell for 23 hours a day, and he has gained a stone. My dad’s eyes are very yellow and his mental health has deteriorated. He had no enthusiasm and no life in him.”

“I’m nervous for when he gets out in four months because he has basically been in solitary confinement due to Covid, for white collar crime. There will be a whole generation of mentally affected inmates from these conditions. Even the prison guards said to my sister: ‘It’s inhumane, it’s really sad to see’.”

* Names in this article have been changed