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In Focus: How it feels to leave prison during a pandemic


 When 23-year-old Omar* was released from HMP Wandsworth in July, his family were excited to have him home.

They had missed him during the four months served for a drugs offence; but the man who walked through their door – holding just a plastic bag containing a few clothes, trainers and letters – was a stranger.

 ‘When you come out, it’s hard to function,’ recalls Omar. ‘It’s like your eyes have been closed and then you come out into blinding light. It’s daunting. You’re suddenly just there, in the world.

 ‘You’d think I would be happy to see my friends and family,’  he adds. ‘But I wanted to be left alone. For months, I would sit in my room the whole day and not speak to anyone. I’d just turn off the light and sit there.’ 

Omar says that it wasn’t the prison experience itself that had broken him, but the double lockdown of being restricted to his cell day and night.

When the UK decided to put restrictive measures in place last year, many lives were saved by the strict quarantine conditions imposed on prisoners as authorities sought to stop the spread. 

At the time, Public Health England predicted up to 2,700 prisoners could die from Covid. To date, there have been 159 Covid-related prisoner deaths.

However, such stark segregation took its toll and keeping the worst excesses of the virus at bay was achieved at significant cost to the welfare and progression of prisoners. 

According to findings from the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales’ in autumn last year, most spent the pandemic locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day.

These extreme conditions meant many inmates lost hope and left prison without the tools needed to readapt to society.

 In ‘normal’ times, they would have received a healthier routine; jobs, voluntary roles, education, vocational workshops and association gave them choices and opportunity. 

A supportive, rehabilitative atmosphere produces individuals who are more likely to rebuild their lives and less likely to reoffend after prison (Picture: Getty Images)

According to a 2018 Ministry of Justice report, a prison sentence rightly serves as punishment. But, it adds: ‘Education and employment strategy aims to ensure prison can prove to be a pivotal, positive and permanent turning point.’

The findings also state that this starts with education and giving offenders basic skills and work experience so that former inmates ‘are on a path to employment as soon as they leave prison.’

The report also says: ‘Moving ex-offenders off benefits and into work reduces the burden on the taxpayer, reduces reoffending and therefore reduces the number of future victims of crime.’

A supportive, rehabilitative atmosphere produces individuals who are more likely to rebuild their lives and less likely to reoffend after prison. But Covid lockdowns kept them cooped up like, inmates said, animals in cages.

Omar sank into a deep depression while inside, which he attributes to this horrendous lockdown.

He was sent to prison in March 2020 after being convicted for intent to supply Class A drugs. His descent into a life crime was the culmination of a turbulent time that began in war-torn Afghanistan and a childhood marred by violence. 

‘Prison is bad as it is already, but during lockdown it was 100 times worse,’ Omar explains. ‘They would only let us out for 15 minutes to 20 minutes a day. 23 hours inside your cell, with no visits, no nothing, it was hard, mentally. It messes with your head.’

One night, Omar was awoken to his cellmate trying to end his own life. After he was moved, Omar suffered from insomnia. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I would wake every five minutes throughout the whole night.

‘Prison is a scary place. I was just thinking – anything could happen to me in here. I don’t know who I’m in a cell with and I’m stuck in here. How long am I going to be in here? I can’t do this.’

He found himself unable to wash for five days at a time as he couldn’t get to the showers, which he found particularly distressing because, as a practicing Muslim, he wanted to be clean to pray. ‘It was dehumanising,’ he adds.

The UN defines solitary confinement as being held in a cell for 22 hours or more per day. It states that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman, or degrading; ‘prolonged’ referring to anything over 15 days. 

A report from the Prison Reform Trust found that people experienced sensory deprivation due to 23-hour confinement in a cell (Picture: PA)

By the end of June 2020, there were 79,514 prisoners behind bars in England and Wales who had spent months under lockdown conditions.

 According to the Prison Reform Trust, the restricted regime led many with  depression, feelings of low self-worth and suicidal thinking.

 The Trust’s report from February said: ‘People experienced sensory deprivation due to 23-hour confinement in a cell. Before the pandemic, prison jobs, voluntary roles such as prison councils, education, vocational workshops and association had given prisoners choices about how to spend their days. In contrast, the quarantine regime is dehumanising, taking away what little control prisoners had of their lives.’

40-year-old Michael* says he found himself institutionalised ahead of his release, as well as feeling apprehensive and overwhelmed at the thought of leaving.

Michael had served half of a five-year sentence behind bars at Norfolk’s HMP Wayland after being convicted of possession with intent to supply class A drugs in 2019 and has since been let out on supervision.

He says: ‘One day the whole prison system is normal, and then the next thing you know, you are in the cell 24 hours a day.

‘After a few days it begins to play on you. I started to get frustrated. Everyone got wound up. Then it got even tougher. Weeks went past and we were still on 24-hour lockdown. No exercise. Nothing.

‘It was hot as well,’ remembers Michael. ‘It was summertime and the cells were roasting. You wouldn’t be allowed to keep a dog in that cell.

‘There were a lot of guys in there who had nothing. No family. They were absolutely going mad. Talking to themselves. Losing their sanity.’

Michael was unable to see his children for the entire time he was locked up. Prisons introduced video calling, but just like on the outside, this proved to be a poor substitute to seeing loved ones in the flesh. By November 2020, Michael’s mental health faltered.

As little as 10 per cent of prisoners get mental health support, while 70 per cent have mental health needs at any one time (Picture: Getty Images)

‘I saw people get Covid and die,’ he recalls, his voice dropping as he remembers the pain of losing a close friend inside. ‘When I was told he’d died, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went numb. You can’t do anything; you can’t go to the funeral, you can’t grieve. You have to put on a face. You don’t want to be seen as weak or vulnerable in prison.’

 Michael says the grief left him ‘bitter and angry’, but he was luckier than some.

‘One guy’s mental health deteriorated so much he killed himself. I lost a lot of friends. Inside and outside. It was really hard. I look back and think – how did I get through that? All that stress 100% came from Covid.’

 Like Omar, Michael was unable to access the services he needed to prepare himself for the outside world. ‘You’re supposed to get accommodation and help finding work, but I came out of jail with nothing. I had no help,’ he says.

 The mother of his kids picked him up when he left prison, but after the initial elation and excitement wore off, he felt daunted.

 ‘I was sitting in her car, looking at all the cars and people and thinking “Now What?” I was happy, scared, worried,’ he remembers.

‘I had nowhere to live, no job. I didn’t know where I was staying. I didn’t want to go back to London as I didn’t want to get back into crime and selling drugs. I wanted a fresh start.

‘When I saw probation, I was told there was nowhere to stay,’ Michael adds. ‘I was sofa surfing, while looking for a job, seeing probation and trying to stay out of trouble. I wasn’t given the tools I needed to be able to get on. I felt like I was being set up to fail. I was left to my own devices and it was scary. ’

With a report from the Justice Committee in September revealing that as little as 10 per cent of prisoners get mental health support – while 70 per cent have mental health needs at any one time – psychotherapist Hilda Burke, says a comprehensive rehabilitation programme, along with emotional support, is vital in helping prevent reoffending.

‘Prisoners want to prepare as best they can for coming out, and those plans got derailed,’ explains Hilda, who volunteers with prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs. ‘The things they were trying to do to better themselves were put on hold.’

‘I’ve seen an increase in isolation, loneliness, feelings of separation and disconnect as a result. Which mirrored what was going on outside prison. But it was more extreme as a lot of the tools that we could employ to feel connected [outside prison], they didn’t have. 



Women in Prison

It’s not humane, the way we’re being treated right now…like an animal sitting in a cage.’

These are the words of one of the many women for whom life was especially difficult during Covid and who found the cessation of family visits sometimes impossible to endure.

Around half of women in prison have both anxiety and depression and four in ten have made attempts on their lives. More than half were abused as children and 57 per cent have experienced domestic violence.

Many reported that lockdown conditions of the pandemic were resonant of their inability to leave home when held captive in violent relationships, according to the Prison Reform Trust’s Covid-19 Action Prisons Project.

Ministry of Justice statistics show that self-harm among women in prison rose by 47 per cent in the three months up to June 2021. That was nearly six times the rate among men.

Lizzy Jewell, of Working Chance, an organisation which helps women with convictions find employment, says: ‘Women are being released often without adequate support. Our clients tell us that the first few weeks and months after prison are particularly difficult, especially if they don’t have family who can readily support them.

‘It’s not uncommon that women’s mental health deteriorates even more after leaving prison, because the trauma of prison is now being compounded by the pressure of having to adjust to life outside, while facing the added stigma as a woman with a criminal record. Having poor mental health makes it that much harder for women to be able to rebuild their lives and find a job after prison.’ 

 ‘If someone isn’t rehabilitated that impacts them – hurt people hurt people,’ adds Hilda. ‘We have a judicial system in this country that allows for second chances. And if people are not properly healed then that will have an impact on society, and an impact on them. 

‘The more people can learn about themselves and heal, the healthier and happier they will be and the happier and healthier society will be. It is in all our best interests to invest in that and prioritise it. The education and training they get in prison helps in that process.’

Last month, Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister, opened the site of a new prison in Leicestershire. Built out of the rubble of HMP Glen Parva, the eco-friendly prison will be fitted with state-of-the-art in-cell technology to help prisoners with their education and training.

At the topping out ceremony, Raab said prisons should not be seen as ‘holding cells for offenders to while away their days, waiting for their sentences to finish so that they can get back to lives of crime.’

He added: ‘Prisoners should spend their sentences… in purposeful activity that will help them to make a success of their release and turn their lives around.’

There is also an economic argument for effective rehabilitation; reoffending costs the UK £18.1 billion a year, according to Eva Hamilton MBE, CEO of crime prevention charity Key4Life.

She says that 61% of offenders aged 16-24 typically reoffend within a year of release. 

 ‘To reduce reoffending it’s vital to prioritise rehabilitation and deal with the root issues causing these people to turn to crime in the first place, rather than punitive action,’ explains Eva. ‘Employment is the critical factor in helping to break the cycle of crime.’ 

 25-year-old Ricardo* was released in September after serving three-months in HMP Thameside, London, for possession of class B drugs and possession of a bladed article.

 Ricardo insists that he carried a knife for self-protection, and that he never hurt anyone, but after being imprisoned in June, he spent his entire sentence locked up under Covid conditions.

While in prison Ricardo set himself a routine to help him stay sane. ‘If I hadn’t, I would have gone mad – it was getting to me.’ he admits (Picture: Getty Images)

‘When I first got there, I was on an induction wing,’ he recalls. ‘The cellmate to the left was smoking a substance, maybe spice. He had a mental breakdown, went mad in his cell. And then another guy, to the right of me; he died. I don’t know how, I just saw them carrying him out.

‘You’ve got some people in there mad kicking their cell doors all night when you just want to sleep, Rico goes on. ‘You’ve got people shouting they want to kill you. Then, at 830am, the [governors] would rap on the doors. It builds up your anxiety being woken up like that in a dirty, nasty room.’ 

Inmates, he says, were then allowed to the yard for an hour’s exercise, before going back to their cell for the next 23 hours.

As one of the more resilient prisoners, Ricardo set himself a routine to help him stay sane. 

‘If I hadn’t, I would have gone mad – it was getting to me.’ he admits. ‘It was getting to my head. I’m feeling claustrophobic, I can’t breathe sometimes for no reason.

 ‘I would wake up, go exercise, have a shower. By that time, they were going round giving – what shall I call it, lunch? At 11 something. After that I would do a prayer. I might watch some TV…

‘There were in-cell packs where you could do colouring, words searches, sodukus. I might play cards with my cell mate after dinner. Maybe watch a movie or do meditation. I tried to get a job, but they never called me once.’

When he was released, like many prisoners who are unable to access the help they needed to prepare for life on the outside, Ricardo turned to a charity to help him and contacted Bounce Back, an organisation focused on the training and employment of people in and leaving prison.

The group went on to support him in getting onto a railway engineering course, which will eventually lead to a job.

‘If I didn’t get the help from Bounce Back, I wouldn’t have done this course,’ admits Ricardo  ‘I would still be smoking weed.’ 

Michael is hoping to fill one of the estimated 100,000 vacant lorry driver roles, to give back to society and help save Christmas (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

 It was the same organisation that also supported Michael after he’d been released and helped him secure funding for HGV driver training.

‘They have been very helpful – there is nothing but good from them,’ he says. ‘They’ll phone me up, ask if I’m OK and getting that help that we needed but didn’t get during Covid.’ 

Francesca Findlater, Executive Founder of Bounce Back, says: ‘The impact of the extensive lockdown continues to manifest itself now, and will continue to do so for a long time to come… It is a very different world now, and although there are jobs aplenty there is more work to be done to ensure people are ready to take them up after they have been through the experience of lockdown.’

For now, Michael adds, he feels positive about the future and determined to stay on the straight and narrow – especially as in September, Dominic Raab called for offenders serving community sentences to help plug the UK’s labour shortage. 

This move means that he is hoping to fill one of the estimated 100,000 vacant lorry driver roles, to give back to society and help save Christmas.

Likewise, Omar’s depression lifted when he received help from Key4Life, who took him on days out, boxing, playing football and horse-riding.

‘Before my mind was stuck in a box, there was no way out,’ he admits. ‘But when I spoke to them, they opened my mind to millions of opportunities that I see ahead of me.’ 

Now Omar is working as a Networking Engineer and is confident he will not reoffend. 

‘If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I would be,’ he says. ‘Im now 100% back to my old self. I’m with my friends and family, having a laugh again. Happy days.’

A Prison Service spokesperson told Metro.co.uk: ‘During the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, our decisive action saved thousands of lives but there are now no prisons operating under lockdown. Prisoners’ wellbeing is a priority and we continue to support rehabilitation through vital family contact, education, work and exercise.’

*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identity.


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