Locked up in Lockdown – April 2020 – Initial Period of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions
By far the biggest concern is lack of opportunity to stay in meaningful contact with loved ones. This is due to a number of related but presumably not insurmountable changes to regime. In the hall concerned, prisoners are locked in cells for 23 and a half hours a day. During the remaining 30 minutes they must attend to everything else that enables them to stay well. This means choosing to prioritise between calling loved ones, cleaning cells, discussing daily meal selections and / or emergent problems / issues with staff or to shower. If choosing to phone home, most of the thirty minutes is spent queuing for the phone. In this hall, the 30 minutes allocated is around 8am. This means that it has also become almost impossible for prisoners to contact their lawyers.
The timing of this slot means that families and friends are either at essential work, preparing for work or still in bed. This problem is compounded by the fact that each prisoner can only make very short calls, meaning little of importance or comfort can be discussed. Some of those with family on the front line have not spoken to them at all in recent weeks. Prisoners also feel pressurised to end calls abruptly (I have heard the shouts from staff), guilty about the desire to use the phone and stressed about the need to choose between their physical and mental health as well as that of their families. This is especially worrying as there is now no opportunity for indoor exercise.
As the regime has changed, it has become very inconsistent, which means that no planning can be done to ensure that a balance of these tasks is achieved. Some days the 30 minutes is extended, some days it is reduced. As some staff become more stressed with the situation, they are expressing their own feelings and opinions to prisoners and this makes prisoners feel more guilty for trying to ask questions, arrange property collections, choose meals etc. in the very limited time available. It is as if these essential concerns are no longer relevant in the rush to tick the boxes of completed actions. This is compounded by the fact that incoming mail is held at reception for longer and longer (one parcel we sent was there for almost two weeks and took several phone calls from us to have it released. The contents were then found to be damaged). So the cycle of limited time, additional issues to be discussed and the stress that involves continues unabated.
There are a few simple solutions to the worst of these difficulties, suggested by prisoners themselves. First of all, they have read the newspaper article regarding mobile phones in cells and would like to know, in a timely fashion, whether this is accurate and if so, how it will work. This would relieve some of the tension generated by the overwhelming uncertainty.
Secondly, if phone arrangements remain unchanged, they would like to see a visiting style booking system for longer phone calls (and some evening availability for those whose families are working in essential services etc.)
They would appreciate a change to weekly menu selection (this is already in place for those with dietary requirements). They would also like to see alternative methods of contacting staff with non-urgent queries, such as a pro forma. Time could be allocated to deal with these while cells are locked and results fed back. All in an effort to relief pressures on both staff and inmates and thus support good relations.
Finally, they would find a regime of better-defined free time allocation to ensure essential personal hygiene, cleaning etc does not have to be sacrificed in order to queue to phone home.
Purely from a family point of view, I feel that much more could also be done to keep families informed and to signpost information online to enable families to understand how property and funds etc should be sent. Families also need some reassurance re Covid 19 measures as the coverage in the press focuses on the difficulties staff experience and gives the impression that they are the ones most at risk. This attitude is adding to concern for prisoners and families alike. Prisoners must surely be more at risk from staff carrying the disease than staff are from inmates who have no other contact with the outside world.