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we are With You

Experience: supporting people in prison with drug and alcohol issues during the pandemic

Even during regular times our work is unique and challenging. COVID-19 has made it much tougher.

Richard Croft / Lincoln Prison / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Bev Ball, Service Manager at With You at Lincoln Prisons

Think about your experience of lockdown during the last 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now think about what your experience of lockdown would have been like if you lived in a 10 by 12 foot room with just a bed, a sink, a toilet and a small window.

This is the lived reality of the people I work with in my role providing drug and alcohol services at men’s prison HMP Lincoln.

People in prison are always in a version of lockdown. Even during a pandemic that has kept much of the UK in their homes I’ve found it’s difficult for people to get their head around what this is really like. Some of these people have committed quite serious crimes but they’re also human beings living in a very closed, unusual environment in which anyone would struggle on some level.

Considering how they operate you might think prisons weren’t affected by the pandemic. But when the rest of the UK locked down in March last year, prisons locked down too. People were further restricted to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. The only people they could see for much of this time was their cellmate who they didn’t get to choose. Visits from family and friends weren’t possible for a long time with sporadic video contact only available between lockdowns. Late last year we had a COVID-19 outbreak at HMP Lincoln. All these extra pressures have had an impact on the mental health of the people we support.

During regular times our work is unique and challenging. The pandemic has made it significantly tougher. We work with around 25% of the prison population, with one team providing psychosocial interventions to support drug and alcohol issues and a clinical team providing medication like opioid substitutes.

Other drug and alcohol services have weathered the pandemic by replacing face to face contact with phone and video calls and online support. Our staff deliver psychosocial interventions, working with people in prison to explore the underlying issues around their drug and alcohol use and help them find alternative coping mechanisms. But since March last year, they haven’t been able to do this for long stretches of time. During the multiple lockdowns people in prison haven’t had access to IT. We can only phone them from inside prison grounds, but this isn’t an option for our non clinical team when they’re working from home. When we can get people on the phone, we can’t do a proper session because they’re sharing a room with someone else and have no confidentiality.

Our clinical team has continued to attend the prison 7 days per week to deliver medication throughout the three national lockdowns. With prisoners not getting their regular psychosocial interventions sessions our clinical staff have had to make the most of those brief moments of contact. You’ve got two minutes with someone so you push that brief exchange. You try and find out how they’re feeling, what they’re doing, do they need anything from us?

It’s been difficult for everyone in our team. People are tired. But in some ways the experience has made us much closer. One of my staff recently said to me, “it feels like we’ve just become one big, dysfunctional family.”

Interestingly, drug use in the prison has actually gone down in the last year. The main way drugs enter prison is through visits from people outside. With visits not happening, drugs are virtually gone. This has led to an increase in people referring themselves to our service as they’ve struggled with not using substances they would usually have access to. This is a double-edged sword — this increase in referrals comes at a time when we are struggling to get to them and have those important, in depth conversations to help them find solutions.

A big part of our work is supporting people leaving prisons and transitioning to regular life. If people don’t have a home to go to or some kind of income, their chances of reoffending are much higher. The pandemic has again provided an odd mix of good and bad in this area. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme during the first lockdown meant people leaving prison had access to secure accomodation in a way they might not have before. But key things like benefits, long term housing solutions, trying to get people into work and to link with community mental health teams have been much more difficult to organise. Alongside partner organisations, a big thing we’ve done over the last year is try and make sure people we support are leaving prison with mobile phones so we at least have a way of contacting them. We also give everyone leaving prison Naloxone to prevent overdose when they get back into the community

Despite all of these challenges, the guys have been pretty good. The way they’ve interacted with our staff has been very positive. But the prospect of living at least another 3 months in this pressure cooker environment does make us very worried about them.

I think the remarkable way we’ve all adapted has been the one really good thing that’s come out of all of this. From the prison employed staff to our partner agencies to the people in prison, we’re all working together better than we ever have before. It feels like a united front. We’ve all had to be inventive and seize every opportunity to do our jobs the best we can.

Prison works best when it is seen as a form of rehabilitation and we are working hard to maintain this despite the pandemic. It’s been a difficult year but at the end of the day we all want the same thing.

These are tough times for everyone. Our services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.

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Bringing together voices from drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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With You

With You

We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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