Tag Archives: Criminal Justice

‘My mental health has gone’:  Prisoner experiences of Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland during 2020 

The Criminal Justice stream analyses 86 responses to a survey circulated across prisons in Scotland. Overall, imprisoned people reported worsening mental and physical health as a result of Covid restrictions during Spring and Summer 2020. These reduced time out of cell, contact with family and varied activities.

Pervasive Punishment in a Pandemic

The Criminal Justice Stream, led by Ryan Casey, published an article in the Probation Journal. (Online First, 2021)

Abstract: In this paper, we draw on data from a recent study of how Covid-19 and related restrictions impacted on vulnerable and/or marginalised populations in Scotland (Armstrong and Pickering, 2020), including justice-affected people (i.e. people in prison and under supervision, their families and those that work with them; see Gormley et al., 2020). Focusing here mainly on interviews with people released from prison and others under community-based criminal justice supervision, we explore how the pandemic impacted on their experiences. Reflecting upon and refining previous analyses of how supervision is experienced as ‘pervasive punishment’ (McNeill, 2019), we suggest that both the pandemic and public health measures associated with its suppression have changed the ‘pains’ and ‘gains’ of supervision (Hayes, 2015), in particular, by exacerbating the ‘suspension’ associated with it. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for the pursuit of justice in the recovery from Covid-19.

‘Why have we been forgotten?’ What lockdown is like for prisoners’ families

In this blog, Betsy Barkas explores the impacts of the lockdown on those who have spent it separated from a loved one in prison. Reduced contact with loved ones and a lack of information has increased the strain on people affected by prison, who have been ‘doubly hit’.

To support the suppression of the Covid-19 virus, governments have been encouraged by the World Health Organisation to adopt a policy of controlled release of those unnecessarily detained. In Scotland over the late spring of 2020 some 350 people (as reported by the Daily Record) were released. Everybody else was kept confined to their cell for up to 23 and a half hours per day, effectively in conditions of solitary confinement. In-person visits were cancelled, and access to communal phones was restricted. Three to four months later, new ways for prisoners to stay in touch with loved ones began to be introduced. These included virtual visits, physically distanced in-person visits, and restricted mobile phone use for the equivalent of ten minutes per day.

In this blog, we focus on what life was life for people affected by a loved one’s imprisonment during the first six months of this new regime. Isolation and a lack of support with mental health was widely cited by prisoners as serious issues for them during this time, shown by our analysis of a survey of over 80 prisoners across 14 of Scotland’s prisons (discussed in Things are ‘the same’: Complicating OK narratives of prisoners during lockdown and Mental health in Scottish prisons under pressure during lockdown). We found that these impacts rippled out beyond the prison walls to affect their loved ones outside, who feel let down and forgotten.

Worries about those inside

People in prison are individuals and experienced this period in different ways. We have heard (and discussed elsewhere) some positive experiences, for example for those who experienced this time as an opportunity to reflect, or as a reprieve from some of the more difficult aspects of regular prison life. In keeping with this overall pattern, some family members told us about some positives experienced by their loved ones. However, concern was their dominant feeling. One mother underlined the particular importance of face to face contact with her son in prison:

I had all these visions, nightmares, horror stories, thinking [about] where he is – could this be happening? Could that be happening? And I just worried constantly. And when I didn’t see him, I didn’t know whether he was okay, because I like to look at him. I like to look at him in the eye and say, are you okay? Can I believe you are okay? (Mother of son in prison)

For some people, their previous experiences of interacting with the prison and distrust had increased their worry. As one person said of her partner:

His head is just melted, but we’re not allowed to say anything to [staff] about that, because the stigma of mental health [in prison] is quite bad. And if you mention a hint of having a slight depression or a slight upset they put you in segregation, and then I wouldn’t be able to hear from him at all. (Partner of man in prison)

People who had been used to seeing their partner or child in person regularly, one or even multiple times a week, struggled with the sudden stop of visits in late March with no idea when they would resume. Initially, communication was squeezed instead into a brief few minutes’ conversation using the communal phone in the hall. Reduced access to the phone meant that prisoners had to choose between maintaining contact with a partner or a parent, or other support such as a recovery sponsor, while also managing risk of Covid-19 transmission.

One person explained that she hadn’t been able to speak to her son at all during this period as there was no sanitiser to clean the communal phone after the last person, and due to his own health condition he felt it was too risky to use it. They wrote to each other instead, and so it was by letter that he informed her that during his daily half hour break from his cell he’d witnessed another prisoner’s serious suicide attempt.

He was really upset about that. He struggled to cope with that, because normally the hall that he’s in is very settled. There’s no real problems. But this chap obviously just couldn’t cope with being locked up for almost 24 hours a day. Banging his door all the time. And there was other prisoners like that as well. So my son had all that as well to deal with, which was incredibly hard for him. (Mother of son in prison)

While the early release programme benefitted a restricted group of prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentence, the pandemic’s impact on court and prison processes has led to increased numbers of people on remand (those prisoners with least access to activities and jobs). Others had expected transfers cancelled at the last minute. These issues created huge impacts for their loved ones. A partner of a man in prison told us she had been looking forward to spending time with him following an expected transfer to the open estate, but on the day this journey was scheduled to take place, lockdown was announced and he spent the next six months locked down for 23 hours per day in his existing cell instead. This turn of events had left her ‘devastated’. When we spoke to her in September, she still didn’t know when she and their daughter would see him and told us the uncertainty felt like ‘being on eggshells’.

‘Doubly hit’

At a time that was stressful anyway, reduced contact with loved ones in prison was another emotional burden to bear. Prisoners’ access to communal phones was limited, and mobile phones allowed an average of ten minutes call per day. We spoke to one person who was shielding due to her long-term health condition and, as a result, lost her full-time job and found herself suddenly confined to her house with two young children and making a Universal Credit claim. This was an experience she described vividly as ‘like a train hitting you’. The lack of contact with her partner was extremely hard to bear, a period of time she had counted by the day:

‘[It] doubly hit me, because me and my two [children] were stuck in for 23 weeks. We couldn’t go out, [..] we couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t do shopping. And having that person who’s your cheerleader, and who just absolutely is in your corner, [but who] can’t speak to you for more than five minutes, is absolutely soul destroying. […] I went 117 days without seeing him…’ (Partner of man in prison)

Service providers told us that the specific issues of family contact during lockdown were, in many cases, compounded by other problems generated by the pandemic such as financial insecurity, digital exclusion and access to support services. Children and young people were hit particularly hard by reduced contact with a parent in prison. Staff running support groups with these young people explained the move to online support by Zoom had meant the loss of a safe space away from home where they could discuss their feelings, and had caused many young people to disengage completely.

However, there were also some positive messages, including the creation of new and innovative creative projects with those young people who continued to engage with the digital alternative service. Staff also highlighted the possibilities to engage with families in more remote parts of Scotland, who would otherwise have been excluded. It is clear that staff and volunteers have worked hard and creatively to provide this support, which resonates with our wider findings about the third sector’s crucial role in mitigating pandemic impacts on marginalised groups (see for example Positives of lockdown for service providers).

‘Dangling the carrot’: the wait for information

In this context it is understandable that the introduction of mobile phones and video visits, both announced in April, gave hope to many struggling with the lack of contact. But as the weeks and months went by, anger and frustration set in. For context, Northern Ireland’s virtual prison visits began in April, but Scotland’s began in June). Despite the official SPS helpline for families, the overwhelming sense from those we spoke to was that information had been inadequate. They felt the official communication had been ‘diabolical’, that they hadn’t been able to find needed information, that there were no announcements, that rumours had confused them, that even instructions about how to access digital visits had been wrong.

There was a real sense of how much effort it had taken to discover needed information. People told us they had spent these months ‘badgering’, ‘constantly emailing’, ‘digging deep’ into the official policy documents, doing ‘lots of research’, contacting prison governors, MP’s, MSP’s, and being on Twitter and Facebook every day trying to find things out. Those we spoke to understood that there were legal and practical barriers to the introduction of these new facilities. But it was the delays and the lack of clear information that caused the most frustration, as more than one person described it: ‘dangling a carrot, but not quite within your reach’.

New rules, new dilemmas

Those who accessed virtual visits described their relief at finally seeing their loved one’s face again after several months’ wait. For those who struggle to attend in-person visits, due to lockdown or other reasons it was particularly helpful. As one service provider noted in a response to our survey of organisations:

The introduction of mobile phones and (especially) video visits is something we have fought for for years, and these are finally in place. (Service provider supporting criminal justice involved people)

As noted above, service providers identified digital exclusion as a particular issue and have provided equipment and practical support to facilitate virtual visits. But there were other difficulties too, including restricted time slots and technical problems. One person explained that the time slots, coinciding with school and nursery hours, excluded the possibility of her young child enjoying a virtual visit with her father. Others said that background noise had disrupted their conversation or that the arrangements didn’t feel private enough.

In August limited in-person visits resumed without any physical contact allowed (although children under 12 were exempt). Almost six months on from the beginning of lockdown, the resumed visits were hugely welcomed, but the new rules brought some new dilemmas. One mother told us she couldn’t take both her children because visitors are restricted to two at a time. It would be tricky enough to organise childcare, she explained, but she also wondered about the emotional impact on the child left at home.

At this point in an unfolding pandemic, missing a hug, struggling with technology or to speak through a mask are familiar experiences for most people. But these barriers to communication are particularly keenly felt by those attending actual or virtual visiting rooms, who bring with them so many worries about how their loved one is coping with life inside.


People who have a loved one in prison have been hit particularly hard by the lockdown restrictions. Although a diverse group, they are more likely to be affected by issues such as economic insecurity, particularly for families who have one parent in prison. Digital exclusion also disproportionately affects this group, complicating the good news of the virtual visits. What’s common to everybody affected by prison is that they are reliant on the prison and other agencies to facilitate contact with their loved one. In this aspect, the dominant sense was that they had been let down. When we asked people what they would like to ask the Scottish Government, a mother whose son was in prison said simply:

Why have we been forgotten? Why have we been so let down? That’s how we feel, let down. We have committed no crime. So why have we been let down and forgotten? That would be my question. (Mother with son in prison)

Betsy Barkas is a Research Assistant in the Criminal Justice stream of the study and is researching deaths in custody for a PhD based at the University of Glasgow and Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

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.

Launch event: Left out and locked down | 17 Dec 2020

University of Glasgow logo
Scotland in lockdown: How have covid-19 measures affected your life?

Date: Thursday 17th December

Time: 11am for 75 mins

Registration: This event will take place online via Zoom, register on Eventbrite here

Please join us on 17 December at 11am for a 75-minute webinar launching the results of a major University of Glasgow study. Researchers spent six months studying the lockdown experiences of four groups especially impacted by exclusion and marginalisation.

The Scotland in Lockdown study (official study title: “Health and Social Impacts of Covid-19 Suppression in Scotland for Vulnerable Groups”) is funded by the Chief Scientist Office, Scottish Government, under its rapid Covid-19 research programme.

Partnering with 20 third sector organisations, the University of Glasgow researchers, led by co-PIs Sarah Armstrong and Lucy Pickering, focused on four groups:

  • Refugees and asylum-seekers facing destitution;
  • People in prison and otherwise affected by the criminal justice systems;
  • Survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence;
  • Disabled people and those living with a long-term health condition

The event marks the launch of the project report and its key messages. Over 250 participants in the study allow us to hear the voices of those facing particular hardships of Covid-19 lockdown through:

  • Barriers of information to understanding risks and following guidance around Covid-19
  • Impacts and experiences of isolation, food security, childcare and destitution
  • Changing access to services and the added pressure on third sector and statutory providers

More details to follow, including confirmed speakers and structure of the event. This webinar will be of interest to people affected by these issues, practitioners, policy makers, academics and media.


Please register your attendance via Eventbrite by clicking the link below and you will be emailed a link in advance of the event.

Capacities and demands in times of crisis: Impacts on service provision

This briefing draws upon our survey of staff experiences at 56 organisations providing services to marginalised groups in Scotland.

As support becomes remote and moves online, concerns have been raised about impacts on relationships between staff and service users, but also between community organisations and communities at large. Some services have seen significant spikes in demand and the brunt of meeting these demands is falling unequally on smaller organisations that have fewer resources but refuse to turn anyone away.

Read the briefing by clicking on the link below.

Change and Challenge: Personal impacts for staff supporting vulnerable groups

Sarah Armstrong shares findings from our survey of organisations. Staff have been stepping up to the increased demands on services, but this has not happened without some negative impacts on their wellbeing.

The pandemic required significant change to the way work is done in organisations supporting the most isolated and marginalised. This has initiated some changes that may be positive for organisations resulting in better ways of working post-pandemic. However, on a personal level, most respondents mentioned negative impacts, some quite severe, of their work. This was particularly the case for those working or volunteering in services supporting domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors. Exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and the emotional toll of working in one’s own home to support those facing destitution, hunger and safety concerns was large. This work is also gendered, with many more women than men responding to the survey.

This briefing reports on an analysis of two questions in our organisational survey about the personal impacts on staff in organisations working with excluded and isolated people; paraphrased, these are:

  • Since lockdown until now, have you or others in your organisation used personal resources to continue your service or carry out your work?
  • Please list the ways you or your staff have been affected during the pandemic.

A note on method: A total of 63 responses were received from 56 different organisations taking the survey between July and October 2020. For this analysis, about 40 open-ended comments were analysed in addition to closed question responses. Respondents generally worked in one of the four areas that are the focus of this study: refugees and asylum-seekers (RAD), domestic abuse and sexual violence (DASV), disability and long-term health condition( DHC) or criminal justice system involvement (CJS). Some worked in multiple areas and were categorised as BAME women’s or community development organisations. The most responses were received from DASV and RAD services. See the briefing About the Survey.

Stepping up to the challenge, wearing down from the pressure – divergent messages

There was no uniform way that staff responded to or were affected by working during a pandemic. “Different people within the team have experienced COVID differently” (Staff member at CJS organisation). This had to do with a person’s home situation and relationships, the kind of work they do and whether they had been affected by Covid-19. “Some have coped very well, while others are struggling.” (Staff member at a different CJS organisation)

There were challenges associated both with living with others (partner, children; see below) and those living on their own. For the latter, boredom, isolation and the loss of social interaction from work were issues.

“I was feeling very isolated whilst working because of my living situation so I felt lonely and found it hard to manage emotions for a while.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

We also note some divergence in responses corresponding to the role that respondents had in their organisations: 33 (52%) worked at an Executive, Senior Management (of policy or strategy), while 27 (43%) played an operational, direct services role. Executives and senior managers tended to praise the ways their teams had stepped up to the challenge of adapting to working in a pandemic and also to give examples of how they were supporting staff.

“We have conducted individual interviews with every member of staff about their work environments, wellbeing, and concerns about the return to the workplace.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Those directly providing services or overseeing those who do shared more negative comments about how the personal impacts of work (and see below):

“I feel completely isolated and unsupported. the informal support you get from being in an office or around other workers can be small be makes a massive difference to how you are impacted by day to day situations.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Paying to help, but that’s (mostly) ok

A graph showing the personal resources staff have needed to use in order to carry out their work, with a majority using their own non-work phone, non-work computer and other personal equipment, and almost a third needing to use their own money.

Most people are using their own phones (78%) and computers (62%) to work from home. (Some noted this was temporary.) A majority are also using other personal items or resources (56%), such as stationery, buying office workstation equipment and furniture, or commented on the costs of heating, lighting and other utilities (e.g. to support internet access). Nearly a third (30%) mentioned using their own money to support their work.

However, despite some of the more surprising comments about personally paying to support their work, most commented that this was not a problem, and might even be thought of as a duty. To be sure, some raised concerns about blurred boundaries or sustainability of this, but others said:

“It’s normal. We are all volunteers and use our own gear and make little claim on our finances.” (Staff member at DHC organisation)

“every person I feel has a moral responsibility to do what they can. Any personal resource I have used is because I choose to.” (Staff member at community development organisation)

In contrast, questions that asked about personal impact of working during a pandemic revealed a number of more concerning impacts on people’s homes, relationships and lives. These themes are presented next.

A graph showing the ways that staff members have been affected during the pandemic, with many reporting longer hours, more time off due to sick leave, increased stress and anxiety, and a negative effect on home life.

Paying through worsening health and wellbeing, and it’s not ok

Exhaustion ran through comments from survey respondents: exhausting work, exhaustion managing work and home life, growing levels of fatigue in doing emotionally demanding labour.

This toll is reflected in the numbers:

  • 62% said they experienced stress or anxiety working during the pandemic
  • 52% are working longer hours
  • 32% had taken sick leave (non-Covid-19, often stress-related)

 And in open-ended comments:

“Huge impact on my health and wellbeing. Nightmares about going to work, teeth grinding, panic attacks. Pain from unsuitable desk. Tension within the team over handling of the situation. Considering leaving this job.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

The stresses of work related to shifting to online forms of working, maintaining links with service users, looking after children and more. We do note that a minority of people said their working life had not changed much (6 respondents) and/or their mental and physical health had not been significantly affected (8). For most, however, we saw a high personal cost especially for people working to support those surviving domestic violence, as can be seen by the larger proportion of comments coming from this group than other areas of work.

“The staff are burnt out and our levels of secondary traumatisation/ vicarious trauma have likely increased a great deal.” (Staff member at DASV organisation, responding to a question about messages for Government)

It is notable that this kind of work is also gendered: where we could infer gender from responses (in 41 cases), 83% of responses were received from women.

Tough work intruding into home life

Eroding boundaries between work and home life as well as the specific challenges of looking after and schooling children at home were dominant themes of comments. Nearly 60% of respondents (36 people) said their home life or relationships had been affected by working in a pandemic. This often was connected to the nature of work people do. Confidential and distressing information were aspects of people’s work that accompanied a sense of feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

“I have worked continuously during lockdown in addition to looking after and homeschooling two small primary school age children at home 24/7 so I have had many double shifts and early mornings/late nights working around family needs. This has been stressful and exhausting.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“Supporting survivors in workers own homes has been difficult, invasion of personal, private, safe place for workers.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“I have no dedicated space in my home that is private enough to have conversations about abuse, child protection and risk assessment and am exposing my own children to language that they would not normally be exposed to.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Respondents mentioned a few of the issues that illustrate the emotional intensity of their work such as helping people who are dealing with, for example: destitution, hunger and food issues, suicidal thoughts and mental health challenges, and rape and abuse.

Adapting, and sometimes finding better ways of working

Change and challenge were clear themes of how working has shifted during the pandemic. For managers/executives, this meant covering staff gaps due to sickness or new demand, securing necessary equipment for staff and service users and finding ways to support their staff, e.g. through: team or one-to-one meetings to check-in, ensuring annual leave is taken and so on. (See also our briefing on Funding.)

“I think we as a team have managed as well as we could under the circumstances and tried to keep offering support. Always with high anxiety that we might be placing others or ourselves at risk especially in the beginning.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Personally I have been proud of our response to our community need”. (Staff member at community development organisation)

“This was a trying time and many people were anxious and on edge. Where working relationships and friendships have been strained it is important to take this in context of the situation, forgive, and move forward as a team” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

“It has been extremely difficult, traumatic and deeply divisive and has exacerbated existing issues within the organisation.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Not only the means but the nature of work changed for some, with new services being needed or a shift to crisis work, and suspension of other activities (see our briefing on Changes to Services), and this had human costs for staff:

“I also feel abandoned by my senior managers, who shifted the focus to crisis work, I have been left hanging with no direction or space to discuss anything.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My role changed from being community based service delivery to solely working from home and online delivery, I found that I was working split shifts, additional hours to fit around family life … This has proved challenging and more difficult as time has progressed.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Not all change has been bad (see also our briefing on Positives). Facing a rapid shift to ways and areas of working facilitated more effective approaches and showed the agility of smaller organisations to respond to change. There is a sense of many staff and organisations rising to the challenge and finding in some cases ways of working they will keep post-pandemic:

“many challenges throughout lockdown but have also identified many positive aspects and new ways of supporting women” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My experience is that small, grass roots and third sector organisations were able to adapt quickly and effectively to meet the immediate needs of the communities we are embedded in.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Our team have adapted remarkably well to Covid related changes and we feel there have been some positive benefits for example homeworking helping wellbeing.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“We have worked well to change our approach and under current crisis the team have responded well to a new way of working.” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

Sometimes people found ways of maintaining face to face contact, though this presented its own challenges:

“We have managed to make socially distanced visits but these have taken place in the back garden or close area. This is not always appropriate particularly if raining or for confidentiality” (Staff member at RAD organisation)


This briefing has addressed different aspects of the impact on staff of working in sensitive areas during a pandemic. Like many sectors, working from home has become the norm. However, the people who need these services may rely on face to face and emergency forms of care with specific implications for the hours worked and for anxiety about unmet needs. There is a strong sense of mission for many, but clear and sometimes quite worrying levels of personal stress and health consequences for most. It is also important to note that work being carried out by services is gendered, and mostly done by women.

These responses mainly came in over the summer of 2020, and it is unclear how these impacts will worsen or wane as we move into winter. There are signs that the coming months carry a degree of foreboding and concern about the level of demand building up for services that have had to be suspended, as well as staff levels of stress over the long haul.

“We anticipate longer-term low-level mental health and wellbeing issues, even after the return to ‘normal’.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Sarah Armstrong (@SarahAinGlasgow) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

A request for recognition: Early analysis of our survey of organisations (Part 4)

Molly Gilmour shares more early findings from our survey of organisations.

Key Findings

  • People affected by Covid have felt unheard by decision makers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications of which has taken a toll on their mental health
  • Organisations urge the Scottish Government to recognise and preserve working partnerships that were created during the pandemic
  • The short-term financial support for organisations was highlighted as insufficient as COVID and subsequent implications will be long-term

Molly Gilmour shares early findings from a survey disseminated across Scottish organisations working with Refugees and asylum-seekers facing destitution (RAD); survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence (DASV); those affected by the criminal justice system (CJS); and those living with disability or long-term health condition (DHC). This survey explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their services and staff. This is the fourth blog to be written from this survey, former findings have documented the impact of funding insecurity, some positives of lockdown and some of the changes in service provision.

This analysis will discuss the 47 responses, received between 28 July 2020 and 21 August 2020 by 41 organisations, to the following survey question:

We are feeding our research into Scottish national and local governments. Is there anything you would like to ensure they hear about your organisation’s experience, or the experiences of those you work with?

Digital Divides

Many organisations reflected on the switch to digitalisation of services in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and outlined that families living in poverty have not had access to the technology needed to access online services to receive the support needed. Furthermore, this transition to digitalisation was described as taking too long, for instance the use of video technology in the criminal justice system. An article in The Lancet (2020) explained how ‘any digital technology outside the Prison Authority’s direct control is inherently perceived as a risk’ and that despite rapid permissions, devices remained unavailable until the first pandemic peak had passed due to a prison’s inherent secure digital environment.  While some organisations proceeded with telephone support, many respondents recognised that non face to face services were not sufficient.

‘Face to face interpersonal contact should never be underestimated, so much nuanced information cannot be conveyed via text, email or Zoom/online conference calls’

(organisation working with survivors of domestic abuse)

While face to face working in many services was not advised, some organisations proceeded to continue to visit clients, though in different ways, for example meeting in gardens, public parks or at home where perceived necessary, to make sure that they can identify additional support when it was needed. A Social Work practitioner working with young unaccompanied asylum seekers shared that

‘We decided early on that telephone contact would not meet the needs of the young people and that to be left for several months in this situation would not be acceptable to us’.

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us”

The experience of communities not feeling heard was evident throughout responses to this survey. This was especially pertinent for organisations working with people effected by the criminal justice system. They explained that families affected by imprisonment were unable to see their relative in prison for weeks before virtual visits were introduced. The stress and pain of not seeing their loved ones took a toll on the mental health of these families, and criminal justice organisations documented in this survey that they didn’t feel concerns around this were heard.

‘People who experience poverty on a daily basis must be at the heart of shaping solutions – they are the experts who know what makes a difference’

(community development organisation supporting people leaving prison)

Increased transparency in the court process was identified as a solution for supporting the accountability of judgements, alongside mitigating the traumatic impact that the Covid-19 related criminal and civil court delays are having on those prosecuted, affected families and domestic abuse survivors. An organisation working with survivors of domestic abuse discussed the affect that Covid-19 is having on their client’s mental health, caused by the delays in court proceedings, as staff are witnessing an increase in suicidal thoughts, self-harm and coping through alcohol.

Covid-19 Community Response: The third sector “kept things afloat”

Organisations spoke of the wonderful partnership working that evolved in response to the pandemic. Respondents to the survey described how across communities resources were pooled when and where they were required to help those most in need. Staff working in community-based organisations requested that the Government capture the accomplishments that these new working partnerships achieved to evidence future policy planning and support the existing networks to sustain the effective and meaningful practice. For instance, the partnerships in Inverclyde across education, social care and the third sector were described as being ‘excellent and worth recognition’.

Grassroots organisations described how they quickly upscaled services at the beginning of the pandemic, to plug the gap created by inefficiencies of large and more bureaucratic statutory organisations in areas including food provision and mental health support. Respondents outlined that the adaptation to homeworking by statutory organisations took too long, and that they often either didn’t understand, or alternatively overlooked, the needs of the communities they worked with.

The feeling is that it was really the grass roots/third sector that really “kept things afloat” only to have our funding from HC threatened in the next year due to the council overspend.’

(Women’s Domestic Abuse Organisation)

A Request for Sustainable Financial Support

The short-term financial support for organisations that provided fundamental support during this period was highlighted an urgent issue for review by the Scottish Government, as the financial implications of Covid-19 will be long-term. Respondents explained that many people, particularly women, took on second or third jobs to try and pay for basic household essentials as their husbands had lost their jobs. Community organisations, such as food banks, are a lifeline for families in such dire financial situations. Staff working in these essential organisations were outlined as being ‘burnt out’, and an organisation working with survivors of sexual abuse explained that they expect to have an overwhelming demand for their service when face to face support resumes, and that this must be considered in future planning to ensure a healthy workforce. 

Furthermore, the survey identified the precarious financial situation that many women experience. For instance, the burden of unpaid labour completed by women was stressed which fuels economic abuse. A national income policy was proposed, as organisations argued that the Scottish Government should financially compensate this unpaid labour. In addition to this, a national income policy would support victims of economic abuse, a concern fuelled by the existing court delays, as they are not effectively prohibiting or punishing such behaviours from perpetrators. This national minimum income would also mitigate the precarity for the freelance and self-employed, and perceptions of favouritism that arose in response to the Covid-19 welfare payments, as short-term unemployed were described as being favourably treated compared to long-term unemployed.

Information & Accessibility: ‘Heading onto the Streets in Search of Outreach Teams

Organisations spoke of the lack of information and support received by populations who face destitution, are imprisoned, or reside in homeless shelters and people seeking asylum who were forcibly moved to hotels. Covid-19 was described as ‘nearly ending homelessness’ in the UK as it was reported that more than 90% of the country’s rough sleepers had been housed in accommodation during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the short-term approach of sheltering rough sleepers in the temporarily empty hostels and hotels was not a viable option to mitigate the long-term effects of Covid-19. These populations face multiple risks as they ‘head back onto the streets to beg and search for outreach teams’. The support offered to those housed at this time was described by staff as deplorable. An organisation working with people leaving prisons explained that their clients had been in hostels for months with no welfare checks. It is our understanding that through forcing populations into detention-like facilities, such as prisons or hotels, that information has not been effectively disseminated and people were detained in unsafe environments throughout this pandemic.    


These preliminary findings, while only indicative of the wealth of survey data, provide an insight into the manifold implications of Covid-19 on community-based organisations across Scotland. The pooling of resources for positive partnership working was described as a wonderful outcome of an arduous journey, however it is imperative that the resources needed to sustain this are recognised and supported by the Scottish Government. The mental health implications on staff, volunteers, and communities from responding to and living through the pandemic was described as an urgent issue which must be resolved. Organisations concluded that the long-term effects of Covid-19 will not be overcome by short-term solutions. For the wellbeing of staff, volunteers and the communities they work to support, the findings in this survey propose that sustainable funding from the Scottish Government and local councils alongside reciprocal and transparent communication must be realised.

Molly Gilmour (@MVGilmour) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Glasgow researching how community engagement methods can be used to improve humanitarian medical provision in Lebanon. She is Research Assistant in the Refugee, Asylum Seeker and populations facing Destitution steam of the Scotland in Lockdown study.


Edge, C., Hayward, A., Whitfield, A., & Hard, J. (2020). COVID-19: digital equivalence of health care in English prisons. The Lancet Digital Health2(9), e450-e452.

Mental health in Scottish prisons under pressure during lockdown

Marguerite Schinkel shares early findings from a prison survey disseminated across Scotland, exploring the difficulties experienced by prisoners as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a companion piece to an article written for Inside Time which will be published in November.

A recent study on the impact of lockdown conducted by the University of Glasgow included 87 survey responses from prisoners in all Scottish establishments except for HMP Addiewell and HMP Castle Huntly.

Asked ‘how has your life changed over lockdown’, many wrote about increased feelings of depression and anxiety. Respondents said these were caused by uncertain and changed routines, long hours of being locked up, few resources with which to pass the time (with libraries closed), not being able to see family and the sense of not being adequately protected from Covid-19. People complained about only being able to clean cells once a week, having to share with others, staff and prisoners not getting face masks in time or wearing them properly, problems with social distancing and a lack of care from staff. These findings built on concerns raised elsewhere.

Against this backdrop of poor mental health and descriptions of rising tensions, people found it difficult to access support. One person said they had been waiting since the start of lockdown for any kind of one to one contact with mental health services, despite serious issues. Another described how they had been advised to phone the Samaritans instead of looking for support within the prison but couldn’t afford to do so. This chimes with findings provided by Samaritans themselves (see RPsych in Scotland webinars, or download slides of Samaritans July 2020 presentation here). Yet another had turned to the chaplaincy team in the face of unavailable specialised services. Physical health was also an issue, with people not having their medical needs, such as diabetes, taken into account in the food they were given, or failing to get prescribed medication in time. Some explicitly linked the above problems to completed suicides, of which there have been a number during lockdown in Scotland.  The graph below shows that, overall, for most people life in prison is worse (in many cases much worse) during Covid-19, especially in relation to sources of support.

Graph: How are the following under Covid-19 compared to before?

Bar graph showing aspects of life that got better or worse for prisoners

Other respondents mentioned they had benefited from the lockdown in some ways. Some people who found the chaos of normal prison life difficult, especially being in big groups, found the lockdown regime easier, even describing it as a ‘reprieve’. Others had been able to stop taking drugs with fewer drugs entering the prison. Respondents commented positively on the introduction of virtual visits, which allowed some to see people who lived too far away to come visit in person and felt that mobile phones had made staying in touch with people outside easier. This should be read, though, against the total absence of visits at the start of the pandemic. There were also positive comments about the way that some staff had handled the situation and protocols being followed well.

These positive views ought to remind us that people are individuals and respond differently to the same situation, just as has been the case outside. Elsewhere, staff and family members have reported very negative impacts of prison restrictions, some of which might be easier to articulate for others.  Support should be in place for those who struggle and Scotland’s prisons have a duty of care to provide such support immediately to those most in need, lockdown or no lockdown.

Marguerite Schinkel (@margueritesch) is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the Criminal Justice stream of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

Description of charts on this page

This graph shows responses to the survey question ‘how are the following compared to before?’ Bars indicate the proportion of respondents that responded either ‘Much worse’, ‘A bit worse’, ‘The same’, ‘A bit better’, or ‘Much better’.

It shows that, overall, for most people life in prison is worse (in many cases much worse) during Covid-19, especially in relation to life on the hall, contact with family and friends and access to support services.

Funding lifelines but growing uncertainty: Early analysis of our survey of organisations (Part 3)

Sarah Armstrong shares findings from our survey of organisations. Funding in the third sector, already typified by instability and short lifecycles, has become even more unstable during the pandemic.

Previous blogs have shared early findings from our survey, including some positives of lockdown and some of the changes in service provision. This blog discusses the financial picture for third sector organisations and service providers. Emergency funding has been a lifeline for, and widely accessed by, many. However, this now has been spent, and organisations are facing a deeply uncertain period as we move into winter. Crisis support has offered both large and small lifelines to extremely isolated and vulnerable people but it is unclear how or if such support will be renewed.

This analysis is based on the nearly half of survey respondents (31 responses, representing 30 organisations) who answered at least some finance questions (as of 2 Oct, 63 responses). Abbreviations are used for the four sectors covered in the study: Refugees and asylum-seekers facing destitution (RAD); survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence (DASV); criminal justice system affected (CJS); and those living with disability or long-term health condition (DHC).

Sources and stability of funding

“Generally speaking our funding is now much less stable than it was before, in common with many other charities.”  (CJS organisation)

“Hard to predict how stable or unstable funding will be in future but it is fair to say we are a very small charity and are always looking for funding.” (RAD organisation)

“We have to scrap around for every piece of funding opportunity.” (RAD organisation)

Three sources of funding were critical to the operation of services: Scottish Government, local authority/health and social care and charitable funding.

  • 68% of organisations receiving local authority funding depended on this source (defined as having 20% or more of all income from this source; average amount of budget covered by local authority funding was 33%)
  • 80% of organisations receiving Scottish Government funding were dependent on this (average amount of funding from this source was 38% of total budget)
  • 70% of organisations receiving charity funding were dependent on this (average amount of charity funding as portion of total budget was 40%)

Scottish Government funding was largely felt to be ‘stable’ (55% of respondents reporting this source of income) over at least the next year. However, the other sources of funding were reported by respondents to be ‘less stable’ or ‘unstable’: 74% of those receiving local authority funding rated this as ‘less stable’ or ‘unstable’ and 67% said this about charity funding.

Concerns about finances before, during and after the pandemic

“Funding an organisation like ours is always a struggle, it has simply become much more of a struggle over the past year or so.” (Community development organisation)

Nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) said that prior to the pandemic they had ‘high’ or ‘very high’ concerns about their funding, underlining the financial precarity of the sector. When asked about the state of their finances during the pandemic, these levels increased, nearly doubling so that 45% said they had ‘high’ or ‘very high’ concerns about funding. This figure rose again when asked to assess concerns about funding over the next year, to 66% of respondents.

Respondents rating funding as a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ concern at different points of the pandemic (n=31)

Chart showing respondents rating funding as high or very high concern

The pandemic seems to have intensified a feeling of funding instability that is part of the normal experience of service organisations. There is a concern not only about the increased costs of adapting to Covid-19 related lockdown (such as transitioning to online services) but wider economic instability and the impact of this on funding availability:

“The economy has taken a battering as well, which in turn may reduce the available income of charitable funders due to a downturn in their investment income. We are keeping a close eye on this.” (CJS organisation)

Emergency funding

Most respondents sought, and also received, emergency grants to support their work: of 28 applying for emergency or crisis funding, 86% were successful (24 organisations; four were unsuccessful). Two of the unsuccessful organisations were in the CJS area; the other two were a DHC organisation and a refugee and asylum seeker’s organisation.

The figure below shows successful emergency grant applications by sector. The number of DASV organisations (11) successfully applying for grants is the same as for all other sectors combined (and the one successful BAME women’s organisation also works to some extent with women in abusive situations). The second largest category receiving emergency funding was the RAD sector. This may not be surprising as many RAD and DASV organisations provide refuge accommodation, and the loss and need for safe housing has been on the Government radar from early in the pandemic.

Emergency funding by sector (n=22)

Chart showing respondents receiving emergency funding

Emergency and crisis funding has supported organisations in several clearly identified areas, underlining the primary areas of need:

  • emergency accommodation costs (including offsetting loss of housing benefit for some)
  • food provision
  • digital/technological inclusion for both staff and service users
  • wellbeing support

Comments from respondents detailing how emergency grants were used convey this:

food preparation, delivery, baby and mum provisions, travel expenses, unconditional cash grants up to £50, phone top ups (RAD organisation)

IT provision for staff working from home (DASV organisation)

buying food and laptops for the families (RAD organisation)

to support service users ensuring they have access to internet through the provision of dongles, tablets etc and provision of supermarket vouchers and tops ups for phones and utilities and wellbeing pack  (DASV organisation)

the costs of moving to home working  and remote delivery of support (DASV organisation)


Some noted that emergency funding was fairly accessible and generous early in the pandemic lockdown buffering the impact on organisations and their services:

“The pandemic has, bizarrely, created a short-term ‘windfall” in terms of availability of funding.” (CJS organisation)

We are now entering the seventh month of Covid-19 restrictions with furlough schemes ending, cases spiking and colder temperatures of the autumn and winter coming. The need for supplemental and more stable sources of income for frontline services will not be decreasing, and crisis funds have now been spent. Uncertainty about the future was a theme raised in comments and it is difficult to imagine maintaining even close to a similar level of services without another round of emergency funding or more stable support.

Some costs have been one-off, such as buying equipment, enabling staff to work from home, or for service users to keep in touch with services that are now online. Other costs have been for basic needs that will be ongoing – food, housing, mobile phone top-ups.

A final note related to emergency funding during the pandemic is the extent to which small amounts have been a lifeline for service users. One month of phone data, £50 in cash, a food delivery, a wellbeing pack – these have been common means of providing crisis support to clients. These direct forms of support often are carried out by the smaller organisations, and those working in domestic abuse or refugee/asylum areas.

Sarah Armstrong (@SarahAinGlasgow) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

Description of charts on this page

The first graph on this page shows respondents rating funding as a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ concern at different points of the pandemic

It shows that 66% of respondents have ranked funding as a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ concern over the next 12 months.

The second chart on this page shows emergency funding by sector. It shows that the number of domestic abuse and sexual violence service providers have applied for emergency funding the most, followed by the refugee and asylum service providers.