Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of self-harm. Viewer discretion is advised.
Statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that self-harm has risen substantially amongst inmates in women’s prisons across England and Wales. In the last year, rates have increased by 8 percent with 2020 witnessing a record 10-year high with 12,445 cases reported up until September. Although incidents of self-harm in women’s prisons have been increasing for several years, the pandemic has only exacerbated the existing problem.
Declining mental wellbeing in women’s prisons can largely be attributed to the excessive time for which female prisoners are locked up as well as restrictions on family visitations. On average, women spend 23 hours of the day, seven days a week in isolation - a time period considered solitary confinement by the United Nations. Periods of long isolation have led to women engaging in self-harm. Restrictions on face-to-face visitations from family and friends during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic are also to blame for this rise in self-harm. All face-to-face visits stopped in March 2020 up until July when they were restarted under strict guidelines, only to be stopped again in November 2020 before the second national lockdown.
Female prisoners, who are often primary carers for their children, have found this adjustment unspeakably difficult. Currently, visitations are allowed but only under strict regulations: visitors are expected to stay 2 metres away from inmates and wear masks, making communication strenuous. Visiting times have also been cut and the number of visitors has been regulated, allowing only visitors from the same household. Moreover, physical contact has been banned which has been particularly burdensome for inmates with children. Some inmates have said they are not likely to request another visit because these restrictions on physical contact have upset their children.
Lack of satisfactory face-to-face visitations has dire consequences for the mental wellbeing of prisoners but also more broadly for society. Prisoners with strong relationships with their family and friends are more likely to be successfully integrated into their communities once released and are therefore less likely to re-offend. In addition to damaging the mental health of inmates, the current state of face-to-face visitations threatens to increase recidivism rates.
There are several potential solutions to this growing issue. Since long before the vaccine rollout began, researchers have pressured the government to prioritise vaccinating convicts as prisons are high-risk settings for the spread of the virus, outbreaks are difficult to control, many prisoners have underlying health conditions, and groups that are more vulnerable to COVID-19 are disproportionately represented in the penal system. However, in a recent letter, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has specified that this increased risk of exposure does not warrant inmates’ prioritisation for vaccinations.
Solutions to the lack of face-to-face visitations have been attempted. For example, prisoners can request a 30-minute video call with their families once a month. However, this solution requires adequate technology and Wi-Fi. These facilities are not always available for the low-income communities who disproportionately have incarcerated relatives.
Some advocates, such as Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of the charity "Women in Prison", have advocated for more radical solutions such as decreasing the current number of women in prison. According to the Prison Reform Trust, imprisonment usually exacerbates the issues women face and does not lead to a reduction in reoffending; in fact, over 48 percent of women leaving prison re-offend within a year. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of female prisoners are convicted for non-violent crimes and thus arguably do not pose a threat significant enough to society to warrant the potentially damaging outcomes a custodial sentence can have on a female prisoner’s mental wellbeing. Female prisoners are also nearly twice as likely than male prisoners to suffer from depression (65 percent compared to 37 percent) and more than three times as likely than women in the general population (19 percent).
These statistics reveal that the current increase in self-harm is not simply a result of the pandemic but instead a consequence of the prison experience itself. Thus this issue can perhaps only be combated by either massively reforming the penal system or reducing the number of female prisoners overall.