The pandemic from behind bars

It is almost two years to the day since Brisbane first went into ‘lockdown’, when everyone retreated to their homes, as COVID-19 started spreading across the globe. Since then we have experienced countless lock downs, which have been isolating for many people.

We spoke to members of our Post Release Service and Prison Chaplaincy teams about experiencing the pandemic from behind bars.

At present, our prisons are in the midst of their longest lockdown to date, currently just over six weeks. Speaking to Prison Chaplain, Deacon Russell Nelson, he explains just how isolating these periods of lockdown are for inmates.

Deacon Russ explains, “During a lockdown friends and family, chaplains and other support people are completely locked out of the prison. The time inmates spend alone in their cells also increases significantly, up to 22 hours a day.”

“As chaplains we play a really important role in helping inmates let off steam, release their frustrations and share their burdens with someone. When we aren’t able to be present and long waiting periods for phone usage means it is difficult to call us, inmates have few places to turn.”

These long waiting periods to access phones or teleconferencing, also significantly impacts people preparing for release, as Cherelle Evans from Centacare Prisoners Services explains.

“During broader community and prisons specific lockdowns inmates continue to be released. However, they can’t access the same services to prepare for their release and this creates deep feelings of desperation.”

“We would normally be working with inmates over video conferencing for up to three months before their release, helping them make a plan. With visits not possible, the wait time for calls and video conferencing skyrockets. In some instance by the time our clients are allocated a call they have been released and don’t have a plan.”

The last two years have brought immense change for us all and we have gradually adjusted to a new way of living. We are or are becoming used to wearing masks, sanitising our hands constantly, practicing social distancing and checking in to most places we visit.

As Cherelle explains, “The general public have been adapting to our changing circumstances and increased protocols over the last two years. However, when inmates are released they are thrown into this new world without time to adjust.”

“Re-integrating into the community, especially after lengthy periods of incarceration, has always been difficult. The outside world has generally evolved in a way not seen or experienced behind bars. This sense of foreignness can be very anxiety provoking and is only being exacerbated by COVID.”

Throughout the pandemic, organisations across the sector has been doing the best they can to support people during periods of incarceration and upon their release. You can find out more about the work of our Post Release Service and Prison Chaplaincy teams.