Opinion

Lockdown in lockdown: I watched the country close while in prison

Steve Newark was in prison as the pandemic spread. He came out into a world that had changed beyond recognition

Several States of Mind, artwork by a prisoner at HMP Dartmoor and part of Koestler Arts' No Lockdown in the Imagination exhibition

Several States of Mind, artwork by a prisoner at HMP Dartmoor and part of Koestler Arts' No Lockdown in the Imagination exhibition

The dictionary definition of lockdown is “the confining of prisoners to their cells, typically in order to regain control during a riot”. So in that respect, I’ve been involved in a fair number of lockdowns over the years. However, 2020 became the year of the lockdown, the whole world experiencing some of the restrictions the prison population lives within everyday life.

Re-entering prison in February 2020, I, like most people, was aware of the coronavirus that had been discovered in China. I paid fleeting attention to it. After all, it was something happening on the other side of the planet. Anyway, I had bigger problems than a few people with an illness that would never affect me.

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Through watching the news, reading newspapers and speaking to my girlfriend on visits the seriousness of this newly named Covid-19 was slowly becoming apparent, yet it still didn’t garner enough attention within the prison walls, where trying to blag an extra slice of bread or bar of soap were more important. Prison life just carried on regardless.

Curiously, nobody wore masks. In fact, we were warned of punishment if we wore a mask

Very quickly there was news of infections spreading through Italy, into France and eventually killing people in England. The Prime Minister announced the lockdown and the prison sprung into action. At first it was the closing down of workplaces, the gym was shut down, visits were cancelled, courts were closed – leaving hundreds of remand prisoners in limbo – and we were all locked away. The days turned into weeks as the prison tried to find a way of running a regime that was both safe and lawful.

By this time I was running the servery. My team and I had to carry on working, but changes were implemented. The first was the feeding times. Instead of a hot afternoon meal we were given cold sandwich packs. Any new inmates that entered the prison were put into 24-hour quarantine for 14 days, fed at their door by officers wearing full PPE. Markings were laid out for social distancing and signs displayed the importance of hand washing. Curiously, nobody wore masks. In fact, we were warned of punishment if we wore a mask. Apparently, it would cause mass hysteria!

A lot of the inmates became hostile towards staff, asking why we were being bullied or punished. The consensus was that “this corona bullshit is just an excuse to control us”. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the prison population would rather watch Hollyoaks than the news, so weren’t fully educating themselves. In a place where it’s hard to care about what’s going on over on another wing, let alone in the big wide world, so it’s kind of understandable.

We were lucky to be in the prison we were in, at least we had phones in our cell. Letters were coming in from other establishments about how hard they were finding it. Half an hour out of the cell a day, and all showers and phone calls had to be taken in that time.

I re-entered a society that was vastly different. The lockdown was in full effect and I had to adapt to another set of restrictions

I noticed the breakdown in mental health of a vast majority of prisoners, but also the reduction in violence, drug taking, assaults on staff and bullying. Obviously, this was down to the minimal amount of contact between prisoners, but the authorities used these stats to justify the need for more lockdown once normality finally returns. We’ll see if that’s the case.

My own situation was directly affected by the lockdown. Recalled for an allegation that I was subsequently cleared of, I still couldn’t be released without a parole board. With nobody being allowed in or out of the prison it was impossible to arrange one. I had to wait eight months for the facilities to be put into place for a parole board to take place via video link. Eventually this situation was resolved and I was released.

I re-entered a society that was vastly different. The lockdown was in full effect and I had to adapt to another set of restrictions. I was months behind the rest when it came to wearing a mask. I forgot it so many times I felt like a shit superhero.

The differences between prison in and out of lockdown is down to losing even more of what you are entitled to. In a pressure cooker like prison that’s magnified. It’s the loss of visits that I found hardest, but my girlfriend and I got through it by looking at the bigger picture.

The differences between lockdown inside and outside of prison are these. Most of the public won’t ever experience prison, so the restrictions placed upon them might very well feel like being in prison. As previously established, even the word lockdown is derived from prison. But the truth is nobody has done anything to be punished for, so this form of imprisonment might seem unfair.

However, in prison or free, someday soon the world will reopen and things will go back to normal.

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