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Prison in a pandemic is worse

01 May 2020

Restrictions on movement are not the same as incarceration, says David Kirk Beedon


SINCE the Prime Minister’s announcement, on 23 March, telling people to stay mostly indoors, the word “lockdown” has become part and parcel of common parlance. In the debate leading up to the announcement, concerns were raised about infringements of civil liberties. Subsequently, some on social media have likened the Covid-19 restrictions to being in prison.

It is not; and it is disturbing that anyone should feel that the nuisance of social distancing, limited shopping, and restricted movement is akin to mass incarceration. Having worked in prisons for many years, and having witnessed the levels of deprivation and despair that can reside within their walls, staying at home and washing my hands while singing “Happy Birthday” are trivial inconveniences in comparison.


IN ENGLAND and Wales, there are a little more than 83,000 people held in Her Majesty’s prisons. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme last month, the president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, described prisons as fertile breeding grounds for Covid-19. I know staff to be working heroically to maintain decent but safe and secure conditions behind the razor wire, and doing so at some risk to their own health (although they are rarely acknowledged as “frontline” in public praise).

In a prison in which I served, I introduced a prayer-request board, on which those who came to chapel could pin concerns that weighed on their hearts. I would work through their requests systematically at morning prayer. I was frequently humbled and moved by the sorrow that these predominantly young men had known already in their lives. These were life-wounded souls. None of this is to excuse or condone the crimes that they had committed, but it is to recognise their humanity, which can easily be lost in the criminal-justice system.

While it is sometimes observed that “crime is a young-man’s game” (as desistance — abstaining from crime — is known to increase with age), recent reports (before Covid-19) had started to highlight health-care challenges that were arising because of a growing elderly element in the prison population (partly to do with an increase in historical sexual-abuse convictions). Because of their age and concomitant health issues, many are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Given the high incidence of adverse childhood experiences among the prison population, it is unsurprising that levels of mental illness are high. In a survey carried out by the Prison Reform Trust, 26 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men in custody stated that they had been treated for mental-health issues in the year before being arrested. Similar levels of psychosis are reported (in the general population it is four per cent). A person in custody is 8.6 times more likely to take his or her own life than someone who is at liberty.

I have recently submitted to the University of Birmingham some prison-based research into pastoral care for indeterminately sentenced people in custody. In my interview analysis, I noted that some of the participants displayed high levels of anxiety and morbidness. Experiences in their formative years had left them deeply pessimistic about their life outcomes and those of their loved ones.


“LOCKDOWN” is a word that is familiar to anyone who has worked in a prison. It is usually a state that a prison or wing goes into if there is unrest or a security issue to be investigated. Residents can end up being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day: a shower is their only respite.

This is the state of affairs that prisons are currently working hard to avoid having to implement. The Government’s proposed plans to release (on licence) thousands of low-risk people in custody who have only a short time left to serve have stalled, after it was discovered that a few were released by mistake.

The prison estate across England and Wales was strained before Covid-19; but, if staff sickness levels and prison health-care demands increase as rapidly as is predicted, it is hard not to be concerned about the possibility of widespread unrest. Presently, in most prisons, morale is reported as remaining high, and relationships are healthy among staff and prisoners.

Family visits have now been suspended; so, for the anxious, they are “banged up”, fearing for their loved ones, and with only four walls to stare at, or the doom-laden cyclical news reports to watch. Great work is being done by chaplains, mental-health staff, officers, and others. But there is limited scope for the human interaction that is so important for us all, but especially so for the life-wounded souls who are often encountered behind bars.

In this season of Eastertide, when we celebrate a hope that transcends the fear of death or disease, I commend those souls to your prayers. I trust that knowledge of their plight makes the coming weeks feel less onerous for those of us still more fortunate, and the reasons for gratitude easier to find. This is definitely not like being in prison.


The Revd David Kirk Beedon was a prison chaplain from 2012 to 2018, and formerly a parish priest. He has recently submitted his doctoral thesis “Hope Deferred, Humanity Diminished?: An ethnographic enquiry into pastoral care for those serving a sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection” to the University of Birmingham.

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