People in lockdown ‘feel more hopeless than first-time prisoners’, new study shows

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Young woman with small boy standing by window, prevention and protection.
People in lockdown feel 'more hopeless' than prisoners, the research found. (Getty)

Government-imposed coronavirus lockdowns have a similar effect on some people as going to prison for the first time, a study has shown.

Researchers compared the experiences of 750 people in lockdown last April in the UK and California, with the experiences of 573 people who were sent to prison for the first time.

The research found that people in lockdown felt more “hopeless” than first-time prisoners - but thought less often about missing their freedom, family and friends than first-time prisoners.

The Middlesex University researchers also warned that if lockdowns continue, people may struggle to readjust to ‘normal’ life.

The research - entitled Are People Experiencing the ‘Pains of Imprisonment’ During the COVID-19 Lockdown? - was published in Frontiers.

The research paper concluded: “People in lockdown in both regions were significantly less engaged in a range of daily activities than first-time prisoners.

Read more: What you can and can't do under current lockdown rules

“People in lockdown reported feeling more hopeless than first-time prisoners.

“Although governments introducing lockdown policies do not intend to punish their citizens as courts do when sending convicted offenders to prison, such policies can have unintended adverse consequences. Psychological parallels can be drawn between the two forms of confinement.”

Both groups were asked the same questions – including their thoughts on social conduct and rule-breaking (accusations of disobeying lockdown rules or charges of prison misconduct).

The researchers found that people in lockdown actually missed out on some of the activities which help them cope with confinement.

Those in lockdown either worked or exercised, whereas first-time prisoners were more active as they worked, studied, exercised regularly and attended self-help programs.

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Professor Mandeep K Dhami, who led the research, said, “When the first lockdown began, some people felt that it was similar to imprisonment and even ex-prisoners drew those parallels.

“There’s a sense in lockdown that you’ve lost your freedom and control over your life due to the restrictions imposed on your movement and physical contact with others, as well as the fact that you can’t enjoy some of things that you used to such as going to a restaurant.

“There’s a lot of research on people’s experiences of lockdown but it typically does not use a yardstick or benchmark to measure such experiences.

“By comparing people in lockdown with first-time prisoners we used an extreme comparison and found that in some ways people in lockdown fared worse.

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown

“Our findings, of greater hopelessness in lockdown, were compatible with many other studies around the world showing people in lockdown were having increased rates of mental distress.

Prof Dhami, who has researched how prisoners adjust to their confinement, also made predictions about the potential impact of continued lockdowns.

She said: “As the lockdowns continue, people will eventually adapt to their situation and although this can help them to feel more positive and increase their wellbeing, it may also result in greater difficulties in readjusting to life after the pandemic ends.

“This may be particularly true for those who have been isolating or shielding for long periods of time.

“The prison literature suggests that in such circumstances, individuals may find the prospect of freedom and reintegration into society traumatic, and so we might observe another wave of mental distress associated with the end of long periods of lockdown. We should be prepared for this.”

Watch: What is Long Covid?

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