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Third of UK prisoners show symptoms of 'severe anxiety disorder' due to pandemic

Decreased visiting opportunities were a major issue for most respondents.

Image: Shutterstock/PJ photography

A REPORT LAUNCHED by Queen’s University Belfast has found that measures to cope with Covid-19 led to long periods of solitary confinement across the UK prison population, resulting in higher levels of anxiety and depression.

The study engaged with 180 participants at nine prisons in England and Wales, with 85% of prisoners surveyed confined to cells for 23 hours for the majority of the lockdown period.

20% of respondents thought they were better off dead or thought about hurting themselves everyday, with another 24% of respondents having those thoughts regularly.

Notably the research was mostly carried out by prisoners who had been trained by ex-offender led charity User Voice and social scientists at Queen’s University Belfast.

100 prisoners surveyed their peers over the course of the 18-month project.

Their findings concluded that long periods of isolation and the reduction in support services resulted in widespread deterioration of mental health among prisoners.

59% of prisoners surveyed had not had a single visit with family during the Covid-19 lockdown, while 78% said they had gone at least 6 months without a visit. 

Standard screening tools suggest depression and anxiety scores are almost five times higher than the standard for the general non-prison population.

More than one out of three prisoners were scoring at the level of “severe anxiety disorder” indicating high levels of post-traumatic stress.

User Voice’s Founder and CEO Mark Johnson said: “When almost no one was able to get into prisons, we were able to conduct one of the largest studies of prisoner experiences.”

“This research has been led by prisoners, using our innovative approach developed over the past 15 years and now validated by academics.

“The report reveals one of the darkest and most hidden results of the pandemic, the true effects of extreme lockdown and confinement on prisoners and ultimately, on the public.

“It shows that we need to talk about criminal justice. Are prisons just for punishment or are they failing prisoners and the public if they don’t offer the support which leads to rehabilitation?”

Two thirds of survey respondents said that access to mental health support had worsened, instead of improving, during the lockdown.

The report noted that due to staff shortages  prisons remain much more locked down than they were prior to the pandemic and that staff-prisoner relations remain damaged.

It also stated that “the mental health impacts described in this report will not have magically lifted just because restrictions on movement have lifted to some degree”.

The final sample of nine prisons included a women’s prison, a young offenders institute and 2 private prisons.

Three prisons were in the highest possible security category and six others had various categories of medium and lower security.

Professor Shadd Maruna, Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, explained:

“Our research definitively demonstrates that the social climate in prison has become dramatically worse after the lockdown, and a great deal of work is going to be needed to restore a sense of trust and legitimacy among the incarcerated.”

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