Even before the Covid-19 outbreak last March, the mental health crisis in our prisons was becoming a real and concerning issue over the last few years. By mid-2019 the rates of reported self-harm in prison were at the highest level ever recorded and the suicide rate was higher compared to the general population.
When the pandemic hit, our prisons went into a ‘quarantine regime’. People being confined to their cell for 23 hours a day became the norm. Outdoor exercise and showers became luxuries. Many people in prison are being subjected to ‘prolonged solitary confinement’ under the guise of health and safety. Under United Nations definition this is degrading and cruel.
You can probably imagine what this level of extreme isolation does to the emotional, and physical wellbeing of a population that is already facing an acute mental health crisis. This is coupled by the fact that many people in prison are there in first place due to poor mental health. We haven’t even begun to see the full repercussions yet, and will probably be dealing with it for many years to come.
As a small charity working in this sector we have been constantly asking the people we work with, and ourselves, how we can help. We know there needs to be better mental health interventions in prison, and support on release to prevent people from falling into a vicious cycle of reoffending. Action needs to be taken so people in prison have better access to effective mental health support and eradicate the stigma around receiving it. This starts with empathy and awareness.
The arts and creativity play a crucial role in this. A growing body of evidence shows that having a creative outlet improves the wellbeing and safety of people serving sentences. Creative activities allow people to come together under a common goal. It helps people manage and process complex emotions in a stressful environment. We have seen this in our own work delivering choir and music projects in prison as an effective mental health intervention
Throughout the pandemic it’s become clear that enabling creativity is essential in prison, in all forms: art, music, theatre, design, crafts. The mental health crisis we are facing only means it is needed now more than ever. The good news is that prisons and their governing bodies are recognising this more and more. The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance recently published a guide for prison staff on enabling creativity in a restricted regime under Covid regulations. We hope this means more and better arts interventions become the norm in prison.
We need more awareness and support for the ongoing mental health crisis in our prisons during the pandemic and beyond. If you would like to find out more, click on the links below: