CCJS Annual Lecture: The Covid Crisis and the ‘New Normal’ in British Prisons

Postgraduate Researcher, Tahir Abass, reports on the 2023 Annual Lecture held by the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the School of Law, University of Leeds.

The Centre for Criminal Justice Studies (CCJS) was delighted to host the esteemed Professor Shadd Maruna to deliver its Annual Lecture on ‘The Covid Crisis and the “New Normal” in British Prisons” at the University of Leeds on 14th March 2023. Shadd is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests include desistance from crime, offender reintegration, penal reform and narrative methodology. He is also currently President of the American Society of Criminology, the largest and oldest criminology society in the world. 

The theme of this year’s Annual Lecture was the Covid crisis and its impact on the prison estate in the UK. In March 2020, as the coronavirus swept the planet and drastically changed the way people lived their lives, prisons in England and Wales announced that they would introduce ‘immediate lockdown’ measures to curb the spread of the virus behind the prison walls. As Professor Maruna set out, this was to have devastating implications for prisoners’ mental health and well-being. 

People watching a presentation, one man asking a question.


At the time, according to the Justice Secretary, the ‘lockdowns’ in prison would mean that all social visits would be cancelled, and prisoners would only have access to daily exercise, showers and phones. It is understood that the former Chief Inspector of Prisons at the time, Nick Hardwick, had called for the early release of low-risk prisoners serving shorter sentences, to ease the pressure on the system. However, this failed to materialise. 

According to government ministers, Prison Service chiefs, governors and the Prison Officer Association, enforcing lockdowns, which had restricted prisoners to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, had reduced tensions and violence in jails. There were subsequent calls for the lessons from the pandemic response to the pandemic to be more broadly applied and some of the new restrictions to be permanently introduced to the prison regime.

However, within the ESRC funded study ‘Coping with Covid in Prisons’ that involved collaboration between academics at Queens University Belfast and the ex-offender led charity User Voice, it was found that prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners deteriorated significantly as a direct consequence of the measures taken to curb the spread of the virus. Indeed, this research was pioneering in its innovative participatory research design that engaged with, and included, (ex)prisoners at every stage of the study. Professor Maruna explained how the study had been conducted in collaboration with User Voice and how the aim of this collaborative study was to provide the first systematic review into the experiences of prisoners during lockdown and the impact these restrictions had on their mental health and wellbeing. 

During the Annual Lecture, Professor Maruna outlined the methodological approach and research design, which adopted both qualitative and quantitative methods, and involved training almost 100 prisoners in research methods. In total 24 focus groups were held, and 1421 survey responses conducted.  

Some of the key findings of the study included: 

  • 85% of surveyed prisoners were confined to cells for 23 hours, for the majority of the lockdown period; 

  • 59% of surveyed prisoners did not have a single visit during the lockdown; 

  • Mental and emotional health was found to be significantly worse in prisons compared to the general population but access to mental health support had declined during the lockdown; 

  • 1 in 5 respondents thought that violence had reduced in prisons because of the lockdown. 

Prisoners reported that standards in prisons had declined substantially across various issues, such as in access to exercise and gym, the standard of food and nutrition, general healthcare and access to medication. Professor Maruna outlined how the findings of the study demonstrated that conditions in prison had not improved as a consequence of the Covid restrictions, but rather had become obscured. Indeed, according to a report in the Guardian in 2022, the treatment of UK prisoners during the Covid crisis met the UN definition of torture. 

The impact of lockdowns in prisons was also not limited to those serving custodial sentences, but was also to have devastating consequences for families outside who were unable to visit loved ones due to the restrictions imposed.

A separate study by Dr Shona Minson (University of Oxford), published in March 2021, found that thousands of children had been unable to visit their imprisoned parents in over a year (video calling facilities were also not operational in the prisons in England and Wales until January 2021).   

Man giving lecture points at projection slide


Professor Maruna explained that prior to the onset of the pandemic, prisons in the UK were already at a crisis point. Suicide rates were high, there were regular incidents of violence, overcrowding had been an issue for a number of years, and staff-levels were low with large numbers of experienced prison officers leaving the profession in recent years. Prisoners reported that Covid had been an opportunity to paper over the cracks and divert attention from the failure of the government and prison service to maintain suitable conditions for prisoners. 

Professor Maruna concluded the lecture by emphasising that lockdowns are still being enforced in prisons in England and Wales. However this was now in response to issues around staffing rather than measures to control the spread of the virus. He further stressed that this was counterproductive and that it was necessary to address operational issues in prisons to promote the wellbeing of prisoners and to support their rehabilitation.  

The lecture was very well received with a strong attendance, both in-person and online, that included academics, students and other interested attendees. Our thanks to Professor Shadd Maruna for an engaging and timely discussion; one that continued well beyond the Annual Lecture in the reception afterwards. 

Tahir Abass is a final year postgraduate researcher at the School of Law. Tahir is researching the impact and harms of imprisonment of prisoners’ families, focusing on the Pakistani community in the UK. Tahir is also an ECR member of the Research Advisory Group at the Howard League of Penal Reform.