A Joined up Approach

I keep experiencing cognitive dissonance.

It comes from reading government speeches and accounts that say one thing, set against a reality (much of which the government have a degree of control over) which seems to be entirely contradictory.

It peaked a week ago when I read the government white paper on sentencing published 16th September 2020. My own pandemic related burnout got in the way of reading it in September, but I finally faced it last week at the same time as I read the 2019-2020 Prison Inspectorate report of Peter Clarke, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons.

In the speech to launch the sentencing white paper the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, said of people who are convicted of criminal offences:

‘There is no doubt that they deserve punishment but, if we are to have any chance of turning their lives around – and in the process preventing crime – then we need to divert them towards lives that hold the promise of the things we all want from life – a place to call home, meaningful work, a future that’s better than the past.’

A promising start. Life post-conviction must contain hope and hopefulness, and for many people, their family are a key part of that, so although not explicit I interpreted that section of the speech to indicate that the proposed reforms are based on the understanding that people are much more than their convictions.

In the paper itself there is acknowledgement that short custodial sentences increase reoffending (77% of women are serving short custodial sentences); that problem solving courts and their emphasis on diversion from custody and rehabilitation have been particularly successful with women, and the government have a commitment to address the underlying needs of female offenders. I then read the Chief Inspector of Prison’s Annual Report for 2019-2020, published on 20th October. 2020 has been a very difficult year for those in prison. Since the prisons locked down in response to Covid-19 in March, many prisoners have spent 23 hours locked in their cells each day. On File on Four – Locked up in Lockdown, broadcast 27th October, Dr Laura Janes reminded us that many cells are the size of a car parking space. The Inspectorate had access to 3 women’s prisons during the pandemic and in one of those the women spent all but 30 minutes a day in their cells. Prior to pandemic the report stated that the mental health needs of women in prison ‘were very high and provision varied’. In one prison ‘over half the posts within the mental health team were vacant, assessments took too long, no group work was available and some reviews for those with more serious problems had been delayed.’ Since March 2020, ‘in contrast to prisons holding men, the incidence of self-harm in prisons holding women remained consistently high’. In terms of women’s contacts with their children:  ‘ the suspension of visits and the delays in providing video-calling had had an acute impact on the high proportion of women who were previously primary carers for children, whom they had not seen for months.

A newspaper article published following on from the publication of the HMIP report quoted Mary, a prisoner in the south of England,

‘the lockdown has exacerbated many inmates’ pre-existing mental health problems. “An awful lot of women here were suffering daily before lockdown,” she said. “But the restrictions have made their discomfort far more acute and noticeable. The most heart-breaking spectacle was seeing women, who had these issues, denied visits from their children, then, when visits resumed, not being able to touch their offspring. You cannot give solace to such women; you can only listen to their grief.”

It is known from research that one of the greatest pains of imprisonment for women is separation from their children. It is no surprise that the absolute nature of that separation due to prison lockdown, in many situations without the mitigation of video visits, has had profound effects on women’s wellbeing. My expertise is in the experience of mothers and children, but the loss of contact between imprisoned fathers and their children will also have been experienced as a severe deprivation.

In some ways there is little dissonance between the parts of the white paper that recognise the need to divert some people from custody, and the inspectorate report. If anything the report on prison conditions confirms that the government are right to try to divert people from prison.

The dissonance comes however, because throughout the pandemic the government have had the option to reduce the number of people in prison, as many other countries have done, but the early release scheme, announced by the government early on in lockdown, only resulted in the release of 262 people. So despite the clear recognition in the white paper that locking people up without good prospects of rehabilitation neither helps society nor those convicted of crime, and the recognition that people need life to be better post imprisonment to allow for rehabilitation and reintegration, people have been caged for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes each day since March.  The people who have lived through this pandemic in prison have been changed by it. Their relationships with their families and their children have been changed by it. And when they are released homeless with £46 they are unlikely to be given the support they need to allow them to successfully re-settle in the community.

 “We are seeing an impact on wellbeing and mental health,” he said. “The number of prisoners reporting that their mental health is deteriorating over the past few months is increasing. The risk is you will end up doing irreparable damage to the mental health of a lot of prisoners.”

Peter Clarke

And what of their children?

You don’t have to look far to find alarming reports about the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing and future security of children.

This is a generation under threat. It will be catastrophically, disproportionately hit and harmed by the loss of economic and social opportunities as a direct result of the pandemic. We have taken money out of our children’s futures by racking up this huge national debt. We have to face up to the fact that we not only took away the protective net we throw around our children by closing schools and redeploying the children’s health workforce, but then we mortgaged off their futures for the current reality.”.

Prof Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Member of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies)  Children’s Task Working Group quoted in The Guardian 21.10.20

Professor Cathy Creswell, Professor of Developmental Clinical Psychology at Oxford and lead of the Co-Space study into how families are coping during the pandemic was quoted by the Guardian as saying  “We have failed to listen and respond to these children and their families. We risk having a whole generation unheard, forgotten and devalued.”

This generation is entering uncharted territory, where their opportunities have been devastated. People talk of the resilience of the young but this crisis has happened so quickly that young people have had no time to change and adapt. The impact on them could become entrenched, with potentially enduring consequences.

Dr Dasha Nicholls, Consultant Pscyhiatrist, Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London.

It was reported last week that sleep problems, eating disorders and self harm are on the rise for children. Freedom of Information figures show that prescriptions for sleeping pills for under-18s rose 30% to 186,000 between March and June 2020 compared with two years ago, whilst falling for adults during this time. One of the largest private eating disorder services reported a 71% rise in admissions in September compared with the same period a year ago. A charity that offers counselling said reports of safeguarding issues were up 77% among a small sample of secondary schoolchildren, in particular self-harm.

An overview of the research literature on the impacts of lockdown on the mental health of children and young people by the Mental Health Foundation, highlighted the increased risk to children who are in vulnerable situations. Separation from a parent and parental imprisonment are both recognised as traumatic events for children, which will increase the impact of events such as a lockdown during a pandemic. Such children will need a trauma informed approach to enable them to receive adequate support to move through the experience into recovery.

The government’s own website providing ‘Guidance for parents and carers on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemicemphasises how important it is for children to connect with their parents.

Connecting regularly. If it is necessary for you and your children to be in different locations to normal, make sure you still have regular and frequent contact via the phone or video calls with them. Try to help your child understand what arrangements are being made for them and why in simple terms.

And there’s the cognitive dissonance again.

We know that children are being badly affected by the total disruption of their lives. Everyone knows that.

We know that contact with the most important adults in their lives will be a protective factor AND YET there has been very little done to maintain relationships between parents in prison and their children throughout the past seven months. The Joint Committee on Human Rights called for mothers of younger children to be released. Recognising the difficulties faced in having in person visits there have been calls for video visits, yet on 21st October 2020 Lucy Frazer MP reported that there are still 14 prisons that don’t have this facility. Very few children have seen their imprisoned parent in person since mid March.

In his speech to launch the white paper Robert Buckland QC called for ‘a more joined up approach’ across local and national government.

He is absolutely right. The government need to join the dots.

It is clear from all the information we have available to us that children who have had a parent in prison during the covid-19 pandemic need more support now and in the future. Parents locked up during this time, particularly if on short sentences, are very unlikely to come out of prison in a good state of physical or mental health, able to re-integrate successfully with their children. 

As prisons in Tier 3 areas have once again stopped all social visits, and covid-19 numbers continue to rise, it is clear that this pandemic is not even close to being over for us.

It is therefore not too late to to develop a joined up approach, avoid the cognitive dissonance, and begin to implement changes which will address the difficulties being faced by children whose parents are in prison.

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