Women in prison have revealed the devastating impact of Covid-19 restrictions on their mental health and wellbeing, in a briefing launched today by the Prison Reform Trust.

Based on evidence from women in prison from May 2020 to May 2021, as well as supporting evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and other sources, the briefing looks at women’s experiences of prison during the first and second waves of the pandemic. 

It highlights the consequences for women of a restricted regime amounting to ‘prolonged solitary confinement’, where they were often locked up for 23 hours a day without access to work, training or rehabilitation, and were not able to receive visits from family and loved ones.

One woman said:

“Never in the six years of my sentence so far has lockdown been this severe or long…Mental health is deteriorating for me and [those] around me. Most were coping but over the past 2 to 3 weeks there is a lot of unrest. The worst cases are getting put in seg and we hear the screaming which is awful.”

Another woman said:

“Mental health is a massive issue here in prisons and there is no duty of care for it, we are simply given a colouring pack. Depression, anxiety, discomfort, boredom and comfort eating, the ladies are piling the weight on. I feel I’m in the passenger seat of an out of control car are we are about to hit a brick wall.”

The importance of family contact, especially with children, emerges as a particularly important theme in the report. At the time the evidence was gathered for the briefing, social visits were suspended, and although measures to compensate for the lack of face-to-face visits were put in place, these were unable to fully make up for the loss.

One woman said:

“Personally I feel contact with family/friends is really hard. To start with, we were only allowed 10 mins phone time a day, which has now progressed to 20 mins a day, which isn’t enough…I think everyone’s main issue is family contact and maintaining family ties. This includes family members outside. They find it upsetting and are as frustrated as us.”

A family member of a woman in prison reported:

“Video calls are 30 mins but only once a month. Her visit entitlement is almost once a week so this is a far cry from that and there has been four months without any contact.”

Some women also felt that technology for video calls was designed to give priority to security rather than enhancing ties between mothers and their young children.

One woman said:

“I have spoken to a number of the ladies who have experienced purple visits and the overall feedback was ‘brilliant’. [But…] the software is extremely sensitive and freezes quite a bit…The women and their family members find this frustrating.”

The briefing highlights areas of good practice, implemented by individual establishments, to make the situation more bearable. These include increased provision to call and write to family members, access to exercise and other activities, and kindness from staff.

As prisons emerge from pandemic restrictions, the briefing suggests what prisons should do as they restore a normal regime. These include:

  • Increase the number and duration of visits, providing open air visits and physical contact; but maintain phone credits and video calls 

  • Provide support in the aftermath of visits that leave painful emotions 

  • Enable staff and prisoners to discuss how they have been affected by the pandemic and the regime 

  • Run wing meetings to gather the views of prisoners about what is most important to them and how to proceed 

  • Create or maintain peer support workers and Covid-19 wellbeing reps and support them in their roles 

  • Encourage officers to maintain empathy and caring in their work with prisoners 

  • Explore how the recovery process needs to differ for women 

  • Raise the level of mental health support in prison permanently.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

"As prisons emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, recovery plans must be based on evidence about how women have been affected. Recovery in prisons is going slower than in the community, and is even more fragile. It’s crucial that the measures taken to mitigate the impact on women and their families—such as additional phone credit—are not wound down, and that women in prison are involved in planning for what comes next. But this report should also cause the government to rethink its plans to expose even more women, typically convicted of non-violent crime, to the needless suffering of imprisonment.”

Click here to download a copy of the briefing.