Things are ‘the same’: Complicating OK narratives of prisoners during lockdown

In this briefing on the prisoner survey, Sarah Armstrong focuses on the curious and substantial number of prisoners who said life in prison was the same during Covid-19 as before the pandemic. Exploring comments and comparing them with those from prisoners who said things were worse or better, shows that ‘sameness’ may signal not so much that things were ok, but that the pressures and pains of prison were similar to and pre-existed lockdown.

Content warning: a quote towards the end of the article refers to suicide and violence.

As part of this research, our team designed and circulated a survey for prisoners, with assistance of the SPS Research Office. One question asked how various aspects of prison life had changed during Covid-19 compared to what it was like before the pandemic:

86 total respondents, not all answered all questionsBetterThe sameWorse
Life on the hall15%21%64%
Personal wellbeing20%30%50%
Access to support services6%23%71%
Family contact18%19%63%
Relationships with staff19%46%36%

It is perhaps not very surprising that majorities have said living conditions in prison got worse, and we know from comments that a minority of people have felt the prison response to Covid-19 alleviated some of the negative aspects of institutional life (noise, bullying, crowding). But we were surprised by the substantial numbers of respondents who reported that life in prison had not changed at all during pandemic lockdown.

In what ways might people feel life is just ‘the same’ during a pandemic that has touched the lives of almost every person on earth?

By analysing the comments of the survey focused on respondents who mostly marked ‘same’ responses to questions about pandemic impact, a complicated picture emerges about what sameness meant to prisoners, and how this might be interpreted in terms of the success of the Scottish response to pandemic. (Note: the survey was distributed only to sentenced prisoners. Our team also conducted interviews of people who had recently left prison and of family members of those in prison, not included in this analysis.)

By one measure, it is clear that life, even In Scottish prisons, did not remain the same. A dominant strategy not just in Scotland but in other parts of the world , despite international guidance, has been to keep people locked in their cells for up 22 to 23 hours a day. In Scotland, this was the norm between March and June, and could return with the second wave triggering outbreaks in prison. This effectively constituted solitary confinement for thousands of people over months.

In person visits were cancelled in all prisons from late March 2020, as were all activities in prison run with assistance of outside volunteers. Regular activities also were severely restricted between March and August when prisoners could not access the gym, education classes, or the library. Most prison jobs were also suspended. Meals were delivered to cells rather than eaten in dining halls. Opportunities to socialise or even speak to one another were limited to a few minutes per day. During the lockdown, participants told us that their access to showers was restricted to one every other day, and they were only able to clean their cell weekly. Services and activities continue to be restricted.

Saying things were the same, in this context, therefore becomes curious.

Same good and same bad

My life is not been adversely affected by the lockdown. (Man, 30s)

No change whatsoever.  (Man, 70s)

There was one sub-group of respondents to the prisoner survey who mostly said things had remained the same, which we refer to here as the ‘sameness’ group; this ranged from between one-fifth up to nearly half of respondents as summarised in the table).[1] Sameness responses in the survey were accompanied by sometimes just a short line of text as above. These comments display ambiguity, but tilt towards possible positive (the first quote) or negative (the second one) readings.

We explored this: the person above who said ‘no change whatsoever’ selected ‘the same’ about every aspect of how life had changed during Covid-19 (in addition to life on the hall and personal wellbeing, they also said relationships with staff, family, other prisoners; safety had stayed the same). However, they answered in the strongest negative terms for almost all of the questions about keeping well mentally and physically in prison, selecting ‘never’ in response to questions about having healthy and varied food, a routine, access to outdoors, exercise.

This response pattern flagged up the possibility that feeling things were the same in prison during a pandemic as before, was not because prisons had managed to keep the lockdown’s effects away from prisoners but because prison was already experienced as deeply isolating and limiting. This is a theme arising in other parts of our study, from participants in other kinds of situations like being a refugee – the pandemic may have upended the sense of ‘normal’ for many of us, but was merely a continuation, sometimes amplified, of the already abnormal and alienating conditions of others.

The sense of things being the same but just amplified is evident in further respondents from the ‘sameness’ group:

Everything has [been] pretty much the same apart from getting dinner earlier and locked up earlier at night. (Man, 30s)

The regime has not changed that much apart from our being locked up almost twenty-three hours per day due to social distancing apart from no recreation there is no change. (Man, 50s)

Worse as ever?

Taking the insight emerging from these sameness responses, we dug further into comments and compared those of the ‘sameness’ group with those who had mostly said things had gotten worse or gotten better during the pandemic lockdown.

Here’s a typical comment from someone who selected responses mainly indicating a feeling of life getting much worse during Covid-19, while in prison:

‘Not much family visits. Less freedom within the prison ie, being able to go to both sides of the hall. Can’t cook food bought on canteen due to mealtimes. Always receiving worthless print outs about COVID. Locked much more than usual’ (Man, 30s)

Compare this to a comment from a prisoner who said things were much better during Covid-19:

I wouldn’t say it’s changed much, I’m currently in [prison], but my family are from the [rural] area so the virtual visits are a big bonus, as I’ve no person on person visits. Getting out of cell with smaller groups also helped me as I get anxious in big groups/crowds. … I also miss recreational time at night times as at the moment it’s in the mornings. The staff that have dealt with me have been amazing! Being locked up from 4.40pm everyday, I think we should [get] art packs, bigger options for dvds and books, just something for us prisoners to do to pass the time. (Woman, 30s)

For this person who had been unable to benefit when face to face visits had been allowed, the introduction of technology to manage the loss of such visits meant the pandemic lockdown response had actually constituted an improvement to their situation.

It is hard to distinguish these ‘better’ and ‘worse’ groups, from the sameness group. Here are some more reflections from the sameness group describing life under pandemic lockdown:

Not having visits, physical and mental health getting worse, lack of social life. (Man, 60s)

It’s been quite bad and early dub up [being locked in cell for the evening] also visit[s] have been cancelled which is shocking, I think. (Man, 30s)

The similarities of comments among all prisoners, regardless of whether they rated life in prison during Covid-19 better, worse or the same, is interesting and suggests some further implications. First of all, we should treat survey data on prison experience generally with caution, as the contextualisation of statistics gains added importance for contexts like prison which are in many ways exceptional. Second, and tied to this, the exceptionality of prison experience seemed to be about a sense of prison-normal as something which had already inflicted the pains of lockdown those outside prison are encountering during the pandemic for the first time: minimal family and social contact, mental health damage, boredom, limited autonomy over daily life. Prisoners responded to the pandemic exacerbation of these constraints by rating it the same, better or worse, but underlying this is a sense of a shared perception of prison, differing only about whether this is worth remarking on or being upset about.

Sameness: the exceptional becomes normal

Many comments from prisoners responding to our survey mentioned feelings of being forgotten or bottom of the list for concern about pandemic impact. A few saw the pandemic as raising awareness of problems that pre-existed it (from a long-term prisoner who felt things were much worse during Covid-19):

“I’ve seen guys hanging from bunk beds not a nice sight I’ve seen stabbings, slashings, fights, scaldings. How is a place like this good for anyone[‘s] mental health[;] why has it took for the pandemic for people to ask about our mental health.” (Man, 40s)

The majority of respondents shared negative perspectives of life in prison during lockdown, but this is hard to disentangle from the hardness of life generally in prison. So much is already taken away from imprisoned people, borrowing from Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitics concept, it seems that ‘bare life’ is hardly able to be made more bare by the incursion of pandemic. Agamben employed the idea of bare life to posit a state of society and politics where the exceptional becomes normal, and the sanctity of the person breaks down for some groups. Prisoners might be one such group, and their reflections in the survey offer some evidence of what he called an ‘inclusive exclusion’, a group around whom a discourse of rights swirls but a reality of exclusion and denial prevails.

The fact that descriptions of 22 to 23 hours a day locked in the confined space of a prison cell were common and were seen as just slightly worse than what prison normally felt like, should be a cause for concern not celebration. We will be documenting further analyses of the prisoner survey, sharing powerful accounts of how the lockdown within prisons has entailed profound suffering for those inside, and for their loved ones outside prison.

Here, we have explored how claims of lockdown not making prison life worse, actually reveal damaging aspects of prison in ordinary times. In a prison system officially focused on rehabilitation and governed through human rights-based frameworks, the seeming acceptance of draconian measures on the grounds of reducing Covid-19 risk, suggests not the support of people redeeming their citizenship but the conditioning of people to accept their subordination, “conveying the implicit state request to be compliant” as Javier Auyero put it in his ethnography of poor people’s waiting experiences.

The final quote below, from an imprisoned woman serving a life sentence who rated life as the same, shows both how little human intimacy those in prison received even before Covid-19, and how vital this is for coping with institutionalisation:

I miss my Social Contact like a wee hug after visit. (Woman, 50s)

The new normal is not new at all for those in prison, and shows how the pandemic is merely one more burden to be managed and marker of people as less deserving of care.

Sarah Armstrong @SarahAinGlasgow (she/they) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow. She is co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study. Her research mainly focuses on prisons and punishment.

[1] This was Question 4 in our survey (How do the following compare during Covid-19 to life before), and included sub-questions about life on the hall, personal wellbeing, relationships, safety and access to services. Response options were: much worse, worse, the same, better, much better.

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