How life in Norfolk’s prisons has changed during coronavirus crisis
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
Confined to cells for 22 hours a day, with no visitors and little face-to-face contact.
Life for inmates at the county’s prisons has been altered immeasurably by the coronavirus crisis, with every effort made to keep facilities free of infection.
And now specialist volunteers - responsible for ensuring prisoners are cared for in a humane fashion - have lifted the lid on just how significantly things have changed.
In a non-Covid world, members of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) at HMP Wayland and HMP Norwich can visit at any time to see anybody they want.
They listen to any problems prisoners may have and encourage them to submit what are known as ‘applications’, where issues concerning them can be raised.
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Board members endeavour to find out the root of the problem, investigate, and get back to prisoners with a solution.
But the pandemic has wreaked havoc with that process, necessitating the creation of an nationwide 0800 phone line which people can call from their wings.
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The central difference for inmates, however, is only being allowed outside their cells for two hours a day, when they must eat, exercise, shower and clean their cells.
The resulting lack of contact, according to Wayland IMB representative, Patricia Phillips, has served as a hammer blow to mental health.
“It has been really interesting listening to prisoners at the beginning and listening to them now,” she said.
“The one thing I have noticed is the decline in some people’s mental health. Some have been much lower than others, but it’s often been people who have never had any issues before.
“Some people might be quite astonished to think prisoners are vulnerable, but some have had a chaotic upbringing.
“They are locked up and, to begin with, it was for 23 hours a day but went down to 22. We could say ‘keeping people in their cells for so long is not humane’ but, on the other hand, it is to protect them from Covid.”
Wayland is a designated training prison, allowing those inside to undertake courses in numeracy and literacy, and learn new skills to prepare them for the world of work.
But the virus put paid to education and workshops as well, preventing the facility from fulfilling one of its primary roles.
Mike Gander, chairman of Wayland’s IMB, added: “Covid has hit the prison’s fundamental purpose to rehabilitate. The national response to the pandemic was ‘shut everything down’, so education stopped, but it protected most prisons from tremendous difficulties.
“The prison has done what it can to make things easier for prisoners to cope, such as setting up educational programmes on the intranet for them to use.
“There will be people who think ‘tough, that is what you get’, but just think about being locked in a cell for 22 hours a day.
“We have, of course, read lots about mental health suffering due to lockdown. It is a tribute to the professional care of the prison service that the mental health of prisoners has been maintained at a higher level than we imagined.”
But Jim Parish, on the IMB board at HMP Norwich, says the willingness of prisoners to adapt to a drastically different lifestyle has been admirable.
“Prisoners have adapted very well, considering their change in lifestyle has been huge,” he said. “Any work they do is now confined to essential jobs, and education has been reduced dramatically.
“It has been a big change but there has been a tremendous level of acceptance. There have been no infections in the prison and the prisoners have been as keen for that to happen as anybody.”
Amid an unprecedented chapter in their existence, the IMBs at Wayland and Norwich are currently looking for new members to join.
The role might have evolved in recent months but the ultimate ethos, says Mr Gander, remains the same.
“IMBs there are there to demonstrate to prisoners they have not been forgotten,” he added. “Many have a lot of experience of prisons and they are used to it, but that doesn’t reduce the fact it is difficult for them to continually live like that.
“A prisoner is an individual and you cannot treat them all the same. They have individual problems and face individual challenges.”
Vist imb.org.uk/join-now/current-vacancies/ to apply to join Wayland or Norwich IMB.