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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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