Covid Means I Can't See My Partner In Prison. It’s Been Torture

Awaiting trial in Guernsey for over a year, I’ve been unable to visit Chris in the pandemic. This is how it’s hurting our family.
Restricted area. Close up of a silver colored razor wire security fence against a blue sky
Restricted area. Close up of a silver colored razor wire security fence against a blue sky
Helen Davies via Getty Images

England may be finishing its second national lockdown, but for many families like mine, the first lockdown never really ended. That’s because my partner, Chris, is awaiting trial – on drug importation charges – in Guernsey prison, and we haven’t been allowed to see him since March.

While all UK prisons have operated different regimes during lockdown, I’ve yet to come across another with procedures quite so strict. Guernsey requires visitors to isolate for 14 days on arrival to the island, and unsurprisingly there probably isn’t a single UK inmate whose family can afford to travel to the Channel Islands and quarantine for 14 days so they can see their loved one.

The past seven months have been an extremely stressful and emotional time, made worse by the fact that Chris’ trial has been delayed to March 2021 due to coronavirus. He’s been detained since November 2019, and it’s almost unheard of for someone to be on remand this long. According to Parliament, the average remand time in 2016 was just 39 days.

Unlike most English prisons, Guernsey has also refused to fund video calls between inmates and families. It hasn’t even provided free phone calls either. This means some of Britain’s poorest families have been forced to fork out £10 just to catch a glimpse of their parent, partner or child.

“Lockdown has, for both of us, been lonely without the promise of a monthly visit. But it doesn’t compare to the mental health impact of waiting 18 months to find out whether your partner is spending the next three decades in jail.”

I did once try a video call with Chris, but it cut out every time I moved my face – and unfortunately, this made it impossible to have a conversation. It was really frustrating and sad. I managed to stay positive during the call, but couldn’t hold back the tears afterwards. Eventually, we both decided it would be cheaper and easier to use the phone.

Lockdown has, for both of us, been lonely without the promise of a monthly visit. But it doesn’t compare to the mental health impact of waiting 18 months to find out whether your partner is spending the next three decades in jail. I’ve had a constant feeling of anxiety for over a year now, and it’s hard to acknowledge it won’t fade anytime soon.

This extended wait for trial has been torture. It’s caused arguments, sleepless nights and untold anxieties. Chris is autistic, and his symptoms have become noticeably worse, from his inability to cope with noises to his fear of sudden changes. I’m convinced the emotional impact of these problems would be eased if we could see one another face-to-face.

Sadly, we’re not in a unique situation. One female inmate hasn’t been able to see her three primary school-aged kids since March. There’s a 22-year old lad whose father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and now has to accept he’ll never see his dad again. So I try to count my blessings, while we nervously wait.

The author, alongside her partner, Chris
The author, alongside her partner, Chris
HuffPost UK

I’m a single parent, but I don’t qualify for the government self-employment grant or Universal Credit. This means I’ve had to work harder to pay the bills, but it has perhaps been a blessing in disguise. The lengthy hours mean I have less time to dwell on the lack of face-to-face contact, or focus on just how much I long for a hug, or Chris’ familiar smell.

I’ve always used weightlifting as a coping mechanism when things get stressful – but obviously the gyms have been closed for much of the last seven months. So instead I’ve simply focused my efforts on work and the kids, while trying my best to support Chris emotionally. I try not to compare my personal situation to anyone else’s, as I get irritated when people complain about trivial things like not being able to go to the pub.

But, of course, it’s been much more difficult for Chris to distract himself. There’s little to do in a prison cell. He was moved into isolation, after experiencing an autism-related meltdown when officers unexpectedly tried to move him to a different wing.

Prisons aren’t supposed to punish inmates for displaying protected characteristics of their disability, whether it’s autism, schizophrenia or a broken leg. But the prison service claims that isolation is an administrative measure, and not a punishment.

This was probably our darkest hour. Chris spent most of the weekend on the phone to me, and I could sense he had lost all hope. Our conversations were punctuated by screams from the neighbouring cell, as an inmate begged for medical care and legal representation. It was harrowing to think of him in a six-by-twelve-foot space, with no freedom to wash, exercise or get five minutes’ peace. Worse still, Chris received no mental health support during this time – my hastily googled advice was our only source of expertise.

“During this time of supposed rehabilitation, they’ve received no support.”

I feel angry about the lack of pastoral support in British prisons during the coronavirus lockdowns. Governors need to remember that inmates are humans who’ve been forcibly removed from loved ones, and placed at the margins of society. But during this time of supposed rehabilitation, they’ve received no support.

From a legal perspective, prisons are actually obliged to encourage inmates to maintain meaningful family ties. Some lawyers argue that the visiting ban is a breach of children’s rights. So it’s questionable whether the absence of funded video and phone calls – when visits are almost impossible – is even legal.

I spoke to the States of Guernsey press office, who declined to comment on any of this. But I strongly feel that Guernsey needs to lift its fourteen-day quarantine requirement. After all, it’s been eight months since these austere measures were introduced and, given the strong link between family ties and reoffending, I believe it would be beneficial to introduce a free weekly video or phone call for those unable to receive visits.

Crucially, there needs to be a clear acknowledgement of the trauma experienced by inmates during the pandemic, as well as provision of adequate mental health and pastoral support.

Otherwise, there will be an entire generation of inmates for whom prison will have held no restorative value. They won’t have attended rehabilitative courses, participated in therapy or maintained adequate family ties. And to compound this, they certainly won’t have trust in society.

Dr Rebecca Tidy is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @DrRebeccaTidy

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