Families of Manchester prisoners say they have been forgotten in the pandemic.
In prisons, inmates have been consigned to their cells for up to 23 hours a day to try and prevent the spread of the virus.
In-person visits were cancelled in March, then briefly allowed in the summer, before being stopped again in the autumn, preventing children from being to able to see their parents face to face for months on end.
The separation has had agonising consequences for kids – and parents behind bars, relatives on the outside say.
One woman, who, like all the relatives we spoke to, asked not to be named, told the M.E.N that her partner’s mental health has deteriorated in HMP Manchester.
She said he had logged two requests for help, heard nothing back following the first, and was given a colouring book, apparently to cope with stress, the second time around.
“There’s people in those prisons who’ve got no one, and they’re taking it out on themselves. There’s a lot of self-harm going on,” she said.
“Imagine if that was their last cry for help and they get the colouring book posted to them. It feels like the prisons don’t care,” she said.
“I’m worried about our daughter. She’s gone from being able to see her dad, trying to build their bond playing and talking on visits to nothing,” she added.
“She can’t speak to him over the phone. She’s not interested anymore, she doesn’t know who he is. They’ve lost that bond.
“I don’t know when they’re going to be able to build that up again. I’m terrified she won’t want to,” she added.
Another woman, whose son is in HMP Risley, near Warrington, has watched how separation has affected her grandchild.
“I used to show my grandson pictures of his dad. I said to him one day ‘do you miss daddy?’ and he said ‘daddy gone now’ like a bereavement, like his dad had died.
“His behaviour really changed. He was frightened his mum wasn’t going to come back for him,” she said.
She describes how on grandson also refused to leave her house, worrying he was going to lose her too.
“When we got the first video call I’ll never forget how his face lit up when he saw his dad,” she said. But it was almost too little too late. It’d been five months by then,” she added.
Phone calls and video calls – which were announced in May and rolled out in July – are intended to replace in person visits.
But a number of the families we spoke to said young children had struggled with phone calls, and complained that Purple Visits – the video calling system used by prisons – disconnected more often than not.
One mother described how in a video call that was supposed to last half an hour – the only one families are allowed a month – she got just four minutes and ten seconds of contact with her partner because of faults.
When in-person visits were allowed in the summer, families and prisoners were informed that any physical contact would lead to the families being banned, and prisoners isolated for 14 days.
“I’ve had two socially distanced visits and took the baby on one and it was so distressing that she couldn’t go and hug him.
“I had to wrestle her back, because of the punishment, so I decided it was in our best interest not to bring her again. But it’s just got worse because we haven’t seen him since September,” one woman said.
“At the time she was eighteen months old, how do you explain that to a young child? It was like we’re going to see daddy but you can’t hug him.
“It was horrible, it was heartbreaking. To not be able to do what comes naturally and hug and play,” she said.
Partners of Prisoners, a Manchester based charity, has been supporting families of people serving custodial sentences during lockdown.
A spokesperson said: “PoPS recognizes that everyone is feeling a sense of isolation during lockdown.
“However, families also fear for the additional impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of their loved ones, who have been living in a 6 x 4 cell for 23 hours a day for over 10 months, without regular meaningful activity and quality social contact.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, responding to the families’ claims, told the Manchester Evening News that prisoners were no longer spending 23 hours a day in their cells, that a ‘full Covid regime’ meant they had access to showers and exercise daily, and that ‘vital family ties’ were being maintained through the provision of video calls, extra phone credit, and 1,500 phones to the 75,000 strong prison population.
A spokesperson added that an independent inspection of HMP Risley had found that there was some ‘some good family support work’.
This article first appeared in Manchester Evening News