From lack of showers to isolation, women have faced distressing prison conditions during Covid

By WIP's Chief Executive, Dr Kate Paradine

First published in iNews

We can all agree the past year has been difficult for us all – from loneliness, lack of contact with loved ones or just the sheer impact on mental health. However, as we follow the roadmap out, it’s important to remember people in prison have faced the sharpest end of isolation.

Women in prison have been under non-stop restricted regimes since March last year – locked in cells for an average of 22.5 hours per day, seven days a week. To put this in perspective, the United Nations defines this time-period as solitary confinement.

Generally, this means women spending just 90 minutes outside of the small confines of their cell, most of which is split – 45 mins in the exercise yard and 45 mins for everything else. This means there is often not enough time to get everything done so women have to choose between queuing for communal phones to call home or taking a shower. One woman reported not being given access to showers for eight days.

Filling the rest of the time is difficult, with some counting down the days on the calendar, continually moving the same photos around on their wall, or simply listening to the ticking of the clock. One woman described her experience as “being imprisoned while you’re in prison”. She explained: “It’s not humane, the way we’re being treated right now… it’s like an animal sitting in a cage and being mistreated.”

The impact on mental health cannot be overstated. In January, the same month the Government announced plans to build 500 new prison places for women, we saw self-harm hit record highs with a third increase on the number of women admitted to hospital for self-harm in the last year.

Women have been harming themselves more often during the pandemic as a way of managing increased stress, low mood and anxiety. The removal of the usual coping strategies, such as talking to friends during meals and access to support agencies, have only increased some women’s distress. In-person educational classes have been replaced with distraction packs to be done in cells.

It is not just women who bear the brunt, but also their families. Thousands of children have not seen their parent in prison for a year. Face-to-face visits were stopped in prisons in March 2020 and children are suffering. We know of one seven-year-old losing a stone due to the stress of losing contact while another developing an eating disorder. One carer noted: “What about when the kids just think ‘we just need to tell my Mum’ and they can’t.”

People in prison can receive a monthly 30-minute video call with families. However, to make video calls, families must have the appropriate equipment and the ability to use it. Many children with a parent in prison are from low-income households without computers, phones or Wifi, and without the money to purchase them. Even when they do, any movement – such as children waving too much – could cause the call to freeze. This also means there can’t be too many people on a call, so larger families have to choose which children are allowed to see their mother. The children not ‘chosen’ have to wait another four weeks to see their mum.

Concerningly, Government proposals to build more women’s prison places include plans that children will be sent to prison to visit their mother overnight rather than release her to spend a night with her child, revealing twisted priorities.

We know that 19 in 20 children have to leave home when their mother goes to prison – disrupting their lives and damaging their mental health. This gets worse when you consider that most women serve sentences for six months or less. This is long enough for a woman to lose her job, home and her children, which can have lasting impacts into adulthood. Over a third of women in prison have experience of being in care as a child.

The devastating reality that coronavirus has had on women in prison and families is not simply a biproduct of the pandemic but of prison itself. Strict regimes have exposed prisons for what they are – a dead end, unnecessarily tearing families and communities apart.

It’s baffling then that the Government announced plans to build 500 new prison places for women, despite its own strategy on women in the criminal justice system acknowledging most women should not be in prison and could be better supported in the community.

Minsters claim that more places are required as a result of hiring more police officers. Yet police schemes show this doesn’t need to be the case. Local diversion schemes, which connect women with local support services at the point of arrest, address the root causes of why women were arrested and lead to lower rates of imprisonment.

The Government’s own evidence proves there is another way, one that we know works to keep families together and strengthen communities. When support exists in the community – through local services like Women’s Centres – women are able to tackle the issues that swept them up into crime in the first place, like poverty, domestic abuse and mental ill-health.

The Government can still choose to take the common-sense approach to invest in what works and fulfil its pledge to reduce the number of women in prison.

Women in Prison is launching a campaign calling on the Government to stop building 500 new prison places for women and instead invest in Women’s Centres, which tackle the root causes of why women are swept up into crime in the first place, such as domestic abuse and poverty.