Under the tight restrictions of lockdown in prisons in England and Wales since March 2020 in response to COVID-19, it is now the ‘norm’ for prisoners to be kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
Lockdown has widely been acknowledged as creating a new de facto system of solitary confinement. Whilst the current lockdown restrictions have been criticised, for example, by Peter Clarke, the outgoing HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, as inherently harmful to prisoner wellbeing and mental health, the Prison Officers' Association (POA) continue to endorse the prison lockdown, arguing that it has resulted in increased safety, reduced violence and ‘more stable prison environments’.
With no end yet in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison lockdown is set to continue indefinitely. The assumption, however, that the current lockdown will reduce the violent and sometimes deadly outcomes of penal incarceration or generate safe and stable regimes must be challenged.
In the long term the prison lockdown will do the opposite.
Without question, the lockdown will have long term and serious consequences for the wellbeing of prisoners: it will destroy minds, bodies and lives. As intersubjective and embodied beings, humans need meaningful human interactions and relationships with others to maintain stable identities.
Without the physical (bodily) contact both human identities and perceptions of the real can become disorientated and start to unravel. Our temporal and spatial perceptions are contingent upon the physical presence of fellow humans, and without emotional connectedness, effective communication or regular physical contact, it is possible for someone to not only lose track of the passage of time but also to start questioning and/or hallucinating with regards to their physical surroundings. Solitary confinement can be torturous and ultimately can break human minds.
Isolation in prison can also exacerbate feelings of hopelessness. The absence of hope is a precursor to the generation of death consciousness and ultimately to a prisoner taking their own life. Self-inflicted deaths are a socially negotiated process where the final decision to end life is influenced by the interpretations and expectations of significant others. People with suicidal ideation (the idea of taking own life) are encountering significant ‘problems of living’ and require both positive human interactions and a sense of hope for the future to keep on living.
If their situation is devoid of human interactions, soaked in a gloom of hopelessness or their pain and suffering is met with moral indifference, this negative communication may erode any sense of hope and facilitate a suicide attempt. When any sense of hope ends, or previous relationships that generated feelings of hopefulness are broken, there may be a suicidal crisis.
Sometimes a sense of hope can be stimulated by keeping people busy, preventing social isolation, building new and meaningful relationships or in some way or other indicating that a better future lies just around the corner. None of these seem likely under lockdown conditions in prison (or indeed, under the previous penal regime). The extinguishing of hope in the prison place is not about physical conditions, but derives from the enforced separation from significant others, something which is multiplied exponentially under lockdown restrictions.
The most rational, harm reductive approach that is genuinely looking to save lives must be to radically reduce the prison population. Nothing else will avoid a catastrophe. But our concerns should not just be restricted to the COVID-19 context. Given the historically high numbers of prisoners with suicidal thoughts and the ability of prisons to significantly evaporate hope for all those they contain, questions should also be raised regarding the continued use of imprisonment at all.