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Opinion

There is a mental health crisis in our prisons. Lockdown is making it worse

The shock of prison takes a huge toll on inmates at the best of times. And then came lockdown.

Going into prison for the first time, it takes some adjusting, I can tell you. You have to follow a regime, learn to live in a cell that is 1.8 metres wide and three metres in length and come to realise how little freedom and control you actually have in there.

After a couple of months inside, I began to adjust. I followed the rules, I attended education courses and even had some acquaintances. It was becoming my new normal, until the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain.

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Prison is always in some form of lockdown though, so we as prisoners didn’t think it could get any worse. We were mistaken though. All education was cancelled, trips to the library cancelled and visits from our loved ones were stopped. We were confined to our cells; socialising was brought down to a minimum and daily exercise was limited.

You would try and keep your mind busy and yourself occupied but there’s only so much reading you can do. Only so much television you can watch, especially when you’re limited to eight channels that begin to show the same programmes over and over again.

We were told not to watch the news, but that was all we could do to keep in the know about the outside world. Officers would keep us updated when they came in – about having to queue to get into supermarkets, and how it was like an apocalypse out there.

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We knew why we were in prison – trust me, we knew

It’s no surprise to hear that the majority of prisoners suffer with mental health issues and these issues were only heightened by lockdown. We were having to stare at the same four walls for long periods of time. Shower every few days. Lack of association with other inmates and not knowing when we were able to go out for some fresh air.

You could say that yes, as prisoners we deserved to be treated like that because we were being punished for a crime. We knew why we were in prison – trust me, we knew – we were used to following rules and spending time in our cells, but these measures that were put in place are what no prisoner of this day and age should have had to go through.

Lockdown only exacerbated the already declining mental health within the prison, people who had never suffered with their mental health began to struggle, but there was nothing the officers could do to help. They were already supporting us as much as they could, they would be there to talk to when we were struggling but what we needed was to interact with fellow inmates, see our loved ones, and unfortunately this wasn’t something they could make happen. It was out of their hands.

You think of every moment in your life where you have made a mistake, how you have hurt your family and friends by the choices you have made

As the lockdown got longer and longer, incidents of self-harm increased, prisoners literally couldn’t cope with being stuck with their own thoughts. Prison gives you time to think, I can tell you that for a fact. You think of every moment in your life where you have made a mistake, how you have hurt your family and friends by the choices you have made, you come to realise that your actions do in fact have consequences.

So, let’s say you’ve never struggled with your mental health before, you commit a crime and then you have to do some time inside. You have to live in a room that’s not much bigger than your average bathroom, this is where you will sleep, eat and go to the toilet for the foreseeable future. The Prime Minister then announces lockdown, so you will now spend 23 hours a day in this room, those same walls, the same food and the same rubbish television. Plus, the only sunlight you will get is from your cell window because who knows when you will next be allowed out for some fresh air and exercise. Now tell me your mental health wouldn’t suffer.

This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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