As the world scrambles to thwart off the effects of COVID-19, life in social isolation and under physical distancing has left us trying to understand this new normal. Throughout this time, feelings of despair, confusion and grief have become daily and overbearing occurrences for much of the world’s population. Every country’s response has been different but one thing is certain; our mental health, to varying degrees, has collectively been challenged. Governments and institutions throughout the world are increasingly promoting the importance of mental health, mostly as a result of the current pandemic, yet these very governments and institutions have historically failed to appropriately service their prison population with the same care and respect. The difference is, the coronavirus is not voluntarily imprisoning people and threatening our mental and physical health, unfortunately, the same cannot be true for the incarcerated. The mental health of people in prisons has gone woefully unrecognized by the majority of our public systems, and the Coronavirus Pandemic is making it all the more clear.

If we think back to peak social isolation, we might remember politicians and healthcare professionals advising us to “stay in and stay safe”, based on one premise, that at some point in the near future we’d be freed from such restrictions. This promise may have very well averted many acute mental health crises, the impermanence of these restrictions meant we could tangibly understand the temporal parameters placed on us. But what if the authorities had told us that we would be socially isolated for the next ten or twenty years? At the risk of causing anxiety, I’d like you to close your eyes and let your body and mind confront this possibility.

Like the general population, people in prison also face insecurities about their future, such fears can stem from sentence-related uncertainties, but also ‘typical’ worries like the rest of us, including relationships and work concerns. When the invariable hurdles of life confront us, as ‘free’ people, we are hopefully able to contact our support systems, we might go on a walk, find a healthy (or unhealthy) distraction or contact a mental health professional (if we’re lucky). For people in prison, social support often extends to prison mates and the possibly infrequent phone call, other forms of therapy such as fresh air, if allowed, is limited too. Imprisonment can have irreversible psychological effects, even on those who enter without prior mental health diagnosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated explicitly that prisons are bad for mental health. In 2009, the WHO Europe released the Trenčín statement on prisons and mental health that stated:

“Without urgent and comprehensive action, prisons will move closer to becoming twenty-first Century asylums for the mentally ill, full of those who most require treatment and care but who are held in unsuitable places with limited help and treatment available.“

In this statement, they cite logistic issues like overcrowding and lack of meaningful experiences as factors that contribute to the increased risk of suicide that this population experiences. In male prison populations, the relative risk of suicide was found to be 3 times greater than the general population, in a UK-based study. The increase in poor mental health outcomes stem from a lack of privacy, enforced solitude, physical and sexual violence, among many other factors that are prevalent in prisons.

It appears prisons and mental health hospitals have become conflated terms. The WHO claims that prisons have become ‘dumping grounds’ for people who live with mental illness. In the United States, research suggests that 10-15% of prison populations experience serious mental illness, and in Europe, it has been estimated that 40-60% of the 2 million people who are imprisoned experience some degree of mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. In fact, in certain countries there are more people who experience serious mental illness in prisons than in mental health hospitals themselves. These statistics are born partly due to the fact that in many countries people who experience substance abuse issues are sent to jail instead of treatment, despite only committing minor crimes. Upon entering prison, mental health and substance abuse often go unnoticed or they are worsened. When a prisoner is then released they may carry this trauma with them throughout their lives and into our communities. Prisons act as a mechanism that both perpetuate poor mental health outcomes while simultaneously acting as their primary treatment facility.  

As the research reminds us of the devastating effects of imprisonment and removal from society, our individual experiences with COVID-19 isolation brings a more human element to this data. This is an opportunity to further bolster the fight against imprisoning humans. As we slowly begin to ease physical distancing restrictions in certain parts of the world, let us remember that nearly 11 million people are reportedly incarcerated worldwide, and this number is likely higher. While we stand in solidarity against this virus, let’s not forget people in prisons are experiencing both mental illness and COVID-19 at an accelerated and more fatal rate. While posts such as this one are popping up every day, with new ideas to make our world a more equitable and safe place post-COVID-19, it is important that we do not underestimate the effects of small actions.

The resources below inform how to effect change in our communities and learn and support people in prisons, whether they are diagnosed with a mental illness or not.

Prison Reform and Prison Abolishment Organizations

Recent Global Coalition:https://worldwithoutprisons.wordpress.com/

If You’re New to Abolition: Study Group Guide

https://www.contralatortura.org.mx/

https://www.noprisons.ca/psychiatric-facilities

Associação de Amigos e Familiares de Presos – Amparar

https://www.themarshallproject.org/about?via=navright

Kira Grachev
Kira Grachev

Kira Grachev is a psychologist from Canada who is currently studying Global Health at ISGlobal in Barcelona. Among her interests are mental health advocacy, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender equity. She is also interested in feminist studies and anthropology.



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