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Prisoners suffer from psychological toll and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic

Fears of COVID-19 in prisons has led to decreased family visits and more solitary confinement, causing concerns for inmates’ mental health

While countries around the world like France or the United Kingdom are releasing some prisoners to lower the spread of COVID-19, some prisons in the United States have taken a totally different approach. 

The Missouri Department of Corrections has not released any offender due to COVID-19, according to Garry Brix, the prison’s Public Information Officer.

Yet, tensions are growing as visits have been stopped, isolation has been reinforced, and communications with prisoners’ families have been limited. 

Growing tensions in prisons

Heightened sanitary measures have been put in place as COVID-19 has found its way into the confines of prison cells.

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Prison Insider, which analyses the conditions of prisons around the world, is being used as a tracker to monitor the evolution of COVID-19 within prisons.

The number of new prisoners has decreased in most U.S. prisons because of reduced arrests during lockdowns around the country. But for those who are already incarcerated, life has taken a turn for the worse. 

Prison under lockdown

Prison is never easy, but inmates are experiencing far more difficult situations during this outbreak period. 

Isolation and life incarceration can lead to paranoia, delusion, depression, and insomnia. Under the pandemic’s total lockdown, consequences can be more dramatic. 

Prisoners’ mental health is disrupted by not being in contact with their families. 

However, to compensate for this absence of in-person visits, Scott Taylor,  spokesperson at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, explains that prisoners can still receive mail, and the duration of prisoners’ monthly phone calls have been extended by 300 to 500 minutes “in recognition of how important it is for families to stay in touch during this time.” 

Video-conferencing technology has also been installed in some prisons to enable inmates to keep in touch with their communities. 

 Can community safety be ensured? 

At this stage, there is a lot of pressure to release prisoners in this sanitary crisis outbreak, raising concerns of recidivism — the tendency of some released prisoners to reoffend.

But for Joshua Hoe, founder of the “Decarceration Nation” podcast, the question of recidivism does not seem to be the main problem. “It depends greatly on the person released.” Hoe says, “we are generally pushing for case-by-case considerations for all incarcerated people.”

But is it enough to protect prisoners’ health? 

Prison staff are taking inmates mental health issues seriously during these disturbing times. According to Dr Joe Scroppo, forensic psychologist and attorney in New York: “social isolation is currently not limited to inmates, but for them, the greater loss is contact with outside social supports.” 

He says isolation and lockdown do not seem to be the main sources of mental issues.

“The greater risk to inmates, in my opinion, is their lack of access to personal protective equipment, their inability to maintain adequate physical distance from others, lack of access to COVID-19 testing, and impediments in obtaining adequate care if they actually contract the virus.”

Dr Joe Scroppo
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The US Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” of inmates.

This has been interpreted to mean that prisoners are entitled to adequate medical and mental healthcare. However, inmates can forego certain medical procedures out of fear of increased risk of contracting COVID-19. 

A Public Health Issue

Prison health is part of public health. It means everyone should be treated equally and benefit from the same healthcare services. 

Prison advocacy groups and attorneys are seeking judicial and governmental intervention where prisoners are not receiving the legally mandated level of care.

COVID-19 has not changed the way healthcare services worked in prisons before the pandemic, but it has interfered with inmates’ mental health.

It remains unclear when and how visits will be authorised again, or if inmates will have a chance to be released as prisons contend with COVID-19 outbreaks. For now, it seems solitary confinement and its detrimental mental health impacts is the preferred method of choice.

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