“The pandemic caused a huge rise in suicides among prisoners”

Why is it crucial to ensure family links in prison?

In many countries, the family is, for the prisoner, the sole and main support for survival, providing not only food, clothes, or medicines, but also books or even pocket money to make a crucial phone call. Regular family visits are a breath of air in the suffocating conditions of the cell. The absence of contact and news and the fear that parents or other family members may be infected generate anxiety and uncertainty. It also adds to delays in legal procedures.

It is possible to feel alone in the midst of a crowd. Covid-19 causes loneliness and loneliness is one of the elements that predict despair, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts in prisoners. Data has shown a huge increase in suicide rates among prisoners during the pandemic.

Alarming notions and rumors trigger anguish. No news is usually interpreted as bad news and this leads the prisoner to feel helpless.

This situation is compounded by the opacity of a closed center, where supervision and protection mechanisms do not function and where ill-treatment and torture can go unpunished, generating further anguish and impotence.

How does not seeing their families affect children in detention?

Children in closed institutions develop ambivalent feelings towards the family. There is a double bond in which affection is sought and needed, alternating with the anger of feeling rejected and forgotten. During the pandemic, this delicate balance is disrupted and the child will feel abandoned and lonely and perceive the family as a place of rejection and abandonment. Bonds are broken and negative feelings develop that can be difficult to reverse.

How does not seeing their loved ones affect the families of prisoners?

There is ample evidence of the anguish of families who know from the news that deaths in prison in the context of Covid-19 are on the rise and cannot see how their relatives are coping. The virus is an invisible threat, which entails a daily coexistence with death and awakens the deepest fears of the human being. The world is a threatening place in which it is not possible to protect the family member in prison. This generates feelings of remorse and guilt in many family members, especially if the person is young or vulnerable. This pandemic has led society at large to re-evaluate human relationships and increased the need to be close to those we love. For many people, this has meant a deep change in life priorities. For victims of torture and their families, it has brought the opposite: a greater awareness of the impossibility of being close and being part of the support network that is necessary for survival.

Pau Pérez-Sales is a psychiatrist, internationally renowned expert in forensic documentation and rehabilitation of victims of torture and other ill-treatment, and Director of SiR[a], Spain.