Analysis: those who were cocooned in prison during the Covid-19 lockdown experienced isolation at another level

By Ian Marder, Maynooth University; Joe Garrihy, Birmingham City University and Patricia Gilheaney, Office of the Inspector of Prisons

'I surprise myself I have become so depressed since being cocooned: I feel that I am isolated and solitary. I am also surprised that I am unable to lift myself out of this depression. There is only a few times in my life when I felt suicidal and this is one of them.' – a person cocooning in prison during Covid-19

In March, the Government advised everyone aged 70 or above, and everyone with underlying health conditions, to ‘cocoon’. This meant that they should stay at home and avoid contact with others. This was a protective measure: these groups were most at risk of dying from Covid-19, so their isolation aimed to prevent them from catching it in the first place.

As this advice is relaxed, we are starting to learn about the impact of cocooning. A report published in July found a growth in suicidal ideation, negative emotions and depressive symptoms among older people, as the isolation negatively affected their mental and physical health.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Social Affairs and Religion Correspondent Ailbhe Conneely reports on how the Prison Service has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, we publish a report on the impact of cocooning on people in prison. This is the product of a groundbreaking collaboration between the Office of the Inspector of Prisons and criminological researchers. We wanted to listen to people cocooning in prison and establish how to minimise the harm they experienced. Initially, around 100 persons were cocooned in Irish prisons. With the assistance of Red Cross volunteers, we provided 86 people in custody with journals to document their experiences anonymously. Two weeks later, we received 49 journals containing writing or drawings.

The success in preventing a single confirmed case of Covid-19 among people in custody is a credit to the Irish Prison Service (IPS) and prison staff. Many of those who returned the journals recognised this success, and appreciated that the provisions were in place for their protection. Many journals commended the IPS for communicating regularly through newsletters. Others eagerly awaited the introduction of video visits, which all prisons rolled out shortly thereafter.

At the same time, the despair expressed in the journals made for grim reading. Many people experienced cocooning as dehumanising, depressing and debilitating. Those imprisoned often suffer from poor mental health and mental illnesses. These problems were aggravated by acute feelings of uncertainty, isolation and boredom. Likewise, as on the outside, some suffered severe physical pain as medical procedures were delayed. One person with mental and physical illnesses wrote: ‘All you are left with when the door bangs out is your thoughts and my head drives me fucken (sic) crazy.’

As lockdown demonstrated, the minutiae of everyday life takes on greater importance when our liberties are restricted

For many cocooners, their experience depended on their relationship with staff. Humans are social beings, and relationships between staff and prisoners are at the heart of prison life. For some, staff provided their only human contact, increasing the significance of these interactions. The journals highlighted the benefits of consistent communication and positive staff relationships, and the damaging effects of uncertainty and disrespectful treatment.

Some experienced cocooning as a punishment on top of imprisonment, akin to solitary confinement. Others felt dehumanised when spoken to only through their door, rather than face-to-face, at a safe distance. As one person commented: ‘for anybody outside who knows how it feels to be cocooned for so long, a smiley face means a lot.’

As lockdown demonstrated, the minutiae of everyday life takes on greater importance when our liberties are restricted. Many of us sought to sustain our mental health and pass the time constructively by enjoying the weather, taking up new hobbies, learning languages or exercising. In prisons, however, some reported being locked in their cells for 30 hours straight, interspersed with an hour on the yard.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy hears from a homeless man cocooning in an adapted Airbnb facility during the pandemic

Despite efforts by the IPS to provide purposeful activities, schools and workshops ceased in many prisons. 'There are only so many word searches you can do,' lamented a bored person in one journal. Meanwhile, people cocooning were served food in cardboard boxes, without choices in their portions. The depletion of flour stocks was testament to the importance of food during lockdown. For people cocooning in prison, however, their food often compounded, rather than alleviated, their low mood.

Criminologists never tire of stating that society sends people to prison as punishment, not for punishment. In other words, the deprivation of liberty is the sanction. We know that the most effective prison systems are also the most humane and dignified. For example, Norwegian prisons apply the principle of normality: residents are still full citizens, and everyday life is as similar to community life as possible. Ireland has an opportunity to develop a prison environment that is dignified for staff and residents, and gives people the best chance of improving their lives on release.

All of us faced unprecedented restrictions to our liberty because of the pandemic. The full impact of this social isolation – especially for the elderly, those with mental health issues, and other vulnerable groups – will be felt for years to come. All public services should consult with those for whom they are responsible to learn from their experience of the lockdown, identify their needs and determine how best to transition their service into a ‘new normal’.

The IPS has published a response to the report, which can be found here.

Dr Ian Marder is a Lecturer in Criminology at the Department of Law at Maynooth UniversityDr Joe Garrihy is a lecturer and researcher at Birmingham City UniversityPatricia Gilheaney is Inspector of Prisons at the Office of the Inspector of Prisons and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law at the University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ