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Issues, Impacts and Implications

If prison regimes had continued as normal during the COVID-19 lockdown, social distancing would have been impossible. Therefore, sweeping restrictions were imposed confining prisoners to their cells, cancelling communal activity and prohibiting visits from family and friends.

This insightful book identifies the risks posed by prison lockdowns to minority ethnic prisoners, foreign national prisoners and prisoners from Traveller and Roma communities across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It documents the unequal impacts on their mental and physical health, feelings of isolation and fear, access to services and contact with visitors.

The legacy of the lockdown will be profound. This book exposes the long-term significance and impact on minority ethnic prisoners.

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COVID-19 constitutes one of the most significant global health crises in a century. Since the novel coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, over 5 million people have died worldwide (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 2021). Many who contracted the virus are now suffering from the debilitating effects of ‘long Covid’. A mental health crisis brought about by, among other factors, bereavement, enforced social isolation and financial anxiety, poses an acute challenge to health services (Campion et al, 2020). Children and young people, from preschoolers to university students, have lost over a year of traditional education. Many businesses, and their employees, face an uncertain future. And billion-euro fiscal bailouts will take decades to balance. Widespread vaccination may have reduced infection and subsequent rates of hospitalization and death in developed countries but, at the time of writing, infection and mortality rates in the Indian subcontinent and the global south are catastrophic.

The onslaught of the pandemic in Western Europe in spring 2020 led to a groundswell of community solidarity: across the United Kingdom people emerged from their houses every Thursday evening to applaud frontline health workers; 700,000 people volunteered their services; and a 99-year-old war veteran, Captain Tom Moore, was knighted after raising millions of pounds for healthcare charities by walking laps of his garden. Similar rounds of applause for frontline workers were held in the Republic of Ireland, and members of An Garda Síochána (the national police service) took part in a dance challenge in a bid to lighten spirits.

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This chapter reviews the experience of prison lockdown on minority ethnic prisoners. As noted in research conducted by Belong (2021) entitled Collaborating with People from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds in Prison: COVID-19 and Beyond, there are several terms currently used to describe minority ethnic groups, each with their own political and cultural connotations. A range of previous research – often including that relating to the criminal justice system – has used the acronym BAME to encompass several minority ethnic groups. There has also been a growing use of the term ‘people of colour’, both in academia and the wider community. However, both terms have been criticized and, in the current context of this book, neither felt appropriate. Rather, this chapter will consider the experiences of prisoners from a range of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, with the exception of White minorities and traditionally nomadic communities (for example, the Irish Travelling community who are discussed in Chapter Four). Ultimately, we have chosen to use the term ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ reflecting the decision made by Belong (2021) following their consultation process with members of these communities. At times, based on the research being discussed, we may also use the term ‘minority ethnic groups (excluding White minorities)’. In the latest census of England and Wales, approximately 14 per cent of the population were from minority ethnic groups, excluding White minorities.

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This chapter focusses on the experience of foreign national prisoners during COVID-19 prison lockdowns. In this context, a foreign national prisoner refers to anyone who does not have an absolute legal right to remain in the country. Those with citizenship (or dual citizenship) are not foreign nationals, and as such, the number of foreign-born persons may be higher than those of foreign nationality (The Parole Board, 2020). We recognize that the experience of foreign national prisoners may differ significantly if they have been a resident in their country of imprisonment for a period of time. We also recognize that foreign national prisoners are far from a homogenous group. As has been mentioned in previous chapters, there may be substantial overlaps between some foreign national prisoners and other groups discussed in this book. For example, the HM Inspectorate Annual Report 2019–2020 noted that 10 per cent of foreign national prisoners were members of the Gypsy, Roma or Irish Travelling community (HMIP, 2020a). As such, issues discussed here may be equally applicable to the other minority groups featured in this book. Similarly, issues facing foreign national prisoners may also be reviewed in other chapters. In 2019, it was estimated that foreign nationals comprised 9 per cent of the population in the United Kingdom (Rienzo and Vargas-Silva, 2020). This does not include non-UK-born residents who hold British citizenship. There are three primary reasons for differences between nationality numbers and country of birth figures.

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Research on the experiences of Gypsy, Romany and Traveller prisoners reported that their numbers ‘[continue] to be underestimated within the custodial estate’ and that ‘the distinct needs of this group are often not recognised and go unsupported’ (HMIP, 2014: 11). This chapter reviews the experience of prison lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic on the Irish Travelling and Roma communities. As traditionally nomadic and significantly marginalized communities, we propose that they may have faced unique challenges in relation to isolation, contacting their families, health inequalities and barriers in accessing culturally appropriate supports.

The Irish Travelling community, often referred to as Travellers or Mincéirí, are a minority ethnic group, distinct from the Irish majority population due to differing cultural and traditional attributes, including strong family structures, unique language (Shelta), staunch religiosity and a history of nomadism (Hayes, 2006; Mulcahy, 2012; Bracken, 2014; 2016; Department of Justice and Equality, 2017; Gavin, 2019). Though indigenous to Ireland, Irish Travellers now reside in a number of countries, including the United States and Canada. However, the largest population of Irish Travellers outside of Ireland is in the United Kingdom (Mac Gabhann, 2011). In the Republic of Ireland, the latest census reported that the Irish Travelling community comprised 0.7 per cent of the total population – approximately 31,000 individuals (Central Statistics Office, 2017a). In the United Kingdom, approximately 63,000 people identified themselves as Gypsy, Traveller or Irish Traveller in the latest census.

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The Scottish Prisoner Advocacy and Research Collective (SPARC) state that in the context of COVID-19, ‘care of people in prison is being reconceptualised purely in terms of protection from coronavirus and health is being reconceptualised only as bare physical survival’ (SPARC Scotland, 2020). As the wider community slowly emerges from lockdown, many prisons remain in some stage of restricted regime. Outbreaks within prisons continue to force lockdowns across wings or entire estates, and the challenges that go with them remain prevalent. In this final chapter, we review the issues and impacts identified within Chapters Two to Four and explore the ways in which prisons may move beyond the pandemic – what can be learned from this experience. We note that while many restrictions had negative effects, some created positive change that should be maintained into the future. Additionally, we reflect on the challenges for staff and prison management as regimes change.

Public health modelling proved broadly correct: restricting human interaction through lockdown saved many lives in prison. The death rate is all the more remarkable when one considers the poor physical health of many prisoners. However, achieving this success came at significant social and psychological costs. Compromises were required, and while strict lockdowns could be justified when the threat posed was so extreme, other benefits accrued. We recognize that even as the risk from COVID-19 abates (at least in the developed world), there may be calls to retain some of the measures introduced during lockdown, which led to other desirable outcomes:

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