Prison diaries give insight into bleak conditions during pandemic
McEntee concerned at inmate wellbeing and journal feelings of being ‘lepers’ and ‘pariahs’
Keeping Covid-19 out of Irish prisons came at a significant cost to the mental and physical wellbeing of prisoners, with elderly inmates being kept in cells for 30 hours at a time.
Prisoners reported feeling suicidal or like “lepers” and “pariahs” as a result of quarantine measures, according to an analysis of prison life during the height of the pandemic found.
The extracts from the prison journals have been presented to the Government along with recommendations for more compassionate and flexible quarantine measures should there be a resurgence of the virus.
Saying she shared the concerns, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said on Tuesday said she would work closely with prison and health authorities to address them. “This is an important issue for me,” she said.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) kept Covid-19 out of its 11 jails with strict infection-control measures including a total visitors’ ban and mandatory “cocooning” of prisoners aged 70 or older and those with medical conditions.
The restrictions ended in late June. At one point in June, 263 prisoners were in some form of isolation as a result of the virus, including 120 “cocooners” who were strictly isolated from the rest of the general population.
Inspector of prisons Patricia Gilheaney, working with academics from Maynooth University’s law department, issued diaries to 86 vulnerable prisoners to record their experiences.
“Yesterday we were let out to the yard at approx 10.30am [and] today we are out at 6.30pm. That is a long time to be left in a small cell . . . 30 hrs in cell [is] very hard to do,” one prisoner wrote.
“There is only a few times in my life when I felt suicidal and this is one of them,” another prisoner wrote in his journal. “Certainly my sleep is affected by lack of activity.”
Many prisoners found the 30-hour gap between periods in the exercise yard “very challenging”. Meanwhile prisoners found it “dehumanising” to deal constantly with prison warders through speaking holes in cell doors.
“Many prisoners expressed that this and other practices made them feel like they were being seen as a ‘leper’, a ‘pariah’ or as sources of disease,” said the prisons inspector.
Older or sick prisoners felt that cocooning was solitary confinement in all but name, where they were punished for being old or sick. This led to a deterioration in mental health, Ms Gilheaney said.
“My punishment by the courts was prison, now doing my punishment cocooning is like doing my time in solitary confinement,” said one. Another found cocooning “very, very depressing”.
‘Hard to stomach’
Others spoke of the bleak atmosphere during the lockdown: “This virus has sucked the life out of everything, even this prison.”
Some prisoners expressed understanding that the restrictions were necessary to keep them safe and gratitude for the actions of IPS staff.
“I am grateful for the staff who care + who help, without them I could see a lot more problems. For staff members who don’t care – ah well – fact of life I guess but very hard to stomach at times.”
Others expressed “confusion, fatigue and a loss of faith in the merits and practices of cocooning, and difficulties with its indeterminate nature”, the inspector said.
The inspector applauded the IPS’s achievement in keeping facilities virus-free but added it “came at a significant cost to the mental health and wellbeing of the people subject to special measures”.
The briefing urged prison authorities to consider allowing groups of vulnerable prisoners to cocoon in “pods” in the future and to allow masked face-to-face contact with staff.
It also urged officials to considering widening the criteria for temporary release in future if the crisis returns.