Thursday, November 19, 2020

People in lockdown thought significantly less often about missing their freedom than did first-time prisoners, were significantly less engaged in a range of daily activities, & reported feeling more hopeless than them

Are People Experiencing the ‘Pains of Imprisonment’ During the COVID-19 Lockdown? Mandeep K. Dhami, Leonardo Weiss-Cohen and Peter Ayton. Front. Psychol., 19 November 2020 |

Rolf Degen's take:


Background: By the end of March 2020, more than a fifth of the world’s population was in various degrees of “lockdown” in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. This enforced confinement led some to liken lockdown to imprisonment. We directly compared individual’s experiences of lockdown with prisoners’ experiences of imprisonment in order to determine whether psychological parallels can be drawn between these two forms of confinement.

Methods: Online surveys of adults in lockdown in the UK (N = 300) and California (N = 450) were conducted 4 and 5 weeks into lockdown in each region, respectively. The UK data was then compared to Souza and Dhami’s (2010) sample of 267 medium security prisoners in England, and the Californian data was compared to Dhami et al.’s (2007) sample of 307 medium security Federal prisoners in California. We measured the effects of Group (Lockdown v. Prison) on five categories of dependent variables (i.e., activity, social contact, thoughts, feelings, and rule-breaking), controlling for demographic differences between the groups.

Results: In both regions, people in lockdown thought significantly less often about missing their freedom, as well as missing their family and friends living elsewhere than did first-time prisoners. However, people in lockdown in both regions were also significantly less engaged in a range of daily activities than were first-time prisoners. Additionally, in both regions, people in lockdown reported feeling more hopeless than first-time prisoners.

Conclusion: 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.


The COVID-19 lockdown resulted in the removal of individual freedoms and restrictions on movement and physical contact with family and friends who live elsewhere, as well as reduced access to potential sexual relations, some previously enjoyed goods and services, and, for some people, a sense of threat to personal safety. These are the sorts of deprivations suffered by prisoners that have been long identified in the literature on imprisonment (e.g., Sykes, 1958Sykes and Messinger, 1960Goffman, 1961). It is perhaps no surprise therefore, that some have likened the lockdown to imprisonment (e.g., Ali et al., 2020O’Donnell, 2020Toon, 2020Wheatcroft, 2020).

In the present research, we directly compared individuals’ experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown with first-time prisoners’ experiences of imprisonment on a range of measures. We found that although people in lockdown (who had never been in prison before) did not necessarily liken lockdown to imprisonment, their subjective experiences of lockdown were comparable to those of first-time prisoners. The pattern of findings was generally consistent when comparing first-time male prisoners with males in lockdown and with females in lockdown. In addition, the findings were fairly similar across the two regions studied (i.e., UK and California). Below, we discuss the main findings, and highlight the strengths and limitations of our approach to understanding psychological experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown, before identifying potential directions for future research.

Are Experiences of the COVID-19 Lockdown Comparable to Imprisonment?

In some respects, individuals in lockdown demonstrated more positive adjustments to their confinement compared to first-time prisoners, although most of these findings do not necessarily paint a positive psychological picture of lockdown. For instance, it is unsurprising that, unlike prisoners who share a living space with unknown others, some groups in lockdown had more interaction with those they live with (i.e., their family and/or friends). Similarly, although some groups in lockdown felt less unhappy relative to before lockdown than did first-time prisoners before they entered prison, both groups were, nevertheless, less happy than before. Finally, although we found that people in lockdown thought less often about missing their family/friends than did first-time prisoners, some groups in lockdown had a similar frequency of contact with family/friends living elsewhere as did first-time prisoners. Other studies have similarly noted a disruption to social ties during lockdown (e.g., Roy et al., 2020Sharma and Subramanyam, 2020).

Perhaps the only indicator we found of the COVID-19 lockdown being psychologically better than imprisonment is that, compared to first-time prisoners, people in lockdown thought less often about missing their freedom and some groups in lockdown also thought less often about needing control over their life. Aymerich-Franch (2020) reported that 70.2% of adults in lockdown in Spain felt less free, but did not use a comparison group. The present findings suggest that even if people in lockdown do feel less free, the sense of freedom is still greater than that enjoyed by prisoners. Unlike prisoners, people in lockdown can, for the most part, plan their own daily regime and venture outside their properties for limited exercise and/or essential purposes.

In other respects, however, the experience of lockdown was either similar to, or even worse than, being in prison for the first-time. Females in lockdown in both the UK and California thought about being attacked/beaten up as equally often as did first-time prisoners. Prisons are notoriously violent places (e.g., Blevins et al., 2010), and the COVID-19 lockdown has not only shone a light on the violence that occurs within the home, but also on the rise of such domestic abuse during lockdown (e.g., ABC News, 2020BBC News, 2020).

We also found that people in lockdown participated in a lesser variety of daily activities than did first-time prisoners. A closer examination of the data showed that whereas over half of first-time prisoners in both regions worked, studied, exercised regularly, and attended a self-help program, the main activities performed by more than half of those in lockdown in these regions were work and exercise. Although we cannot say here whether people in lockdown simply did not engage in other activities such as household chores (Aymerich-Franch, 2020Chirombe et al., 2020), it is clear that the sorts of activities believed to enrich prisoners’ lives and help them cope with their confinement (e.g., education and self-help programs) were less prevalent in lockdown. The psychological effects of limited engagement in activities during lockdown remain to be seen, although other evidence of people in quarantine has documented feelings of boredom (Brooks et al., 2020).

Finally, and perhaps most concerning, is the finding that people in lockdown felt more hopeless relative to before lockdown compared to first-time prisoners before they went to prison. This supports Ali et al.’s (2020) finding as well as that of Sibley et al. (2020), and is compatible with the growing body of research reporting the mental distress suffered by people in lockdown (Aymerich-Franch, 2020Odriozola-Gonzalez et al., 2020Rossi et al., 2020Srilakshmidevi and Suseela, 2020White and Van der Boor, 2020). Feelings of hopelessness are predictive of suicide ideation, attempted suicide, and death by suicide (Ribeiro et al., 2018). Calderon-Anyosa and Kaufman (2020) recently found evidence of increased suicides among men in Peru during lockdown, and Caballero-Domínguez et al. (2020) reported increased suicide risk for people in lockdown in Columbia. Others have similarly forecasted increased suicides worldwide (e.g., Sher, 2020Weems et al., 2020). Thus, the COVID-19 lockdown may have had potentially psychologically devastating effects during the first wave of the pandemic.

Beyond the aforementioned comparison between those in the COVID-19 lockdown and those in prison for the first-time, the present research also found a significant independent effect of age among those in confinement in the UK. On the one hand, older individuals participated in fewer activities and had less social contact with family and friends living elsewhere than their younger counterparts. On the other hand, older individuals were less likely to have negative thoughts pertaining to needing control over their life and missing sex, and were less likely to be accused of (or be charged with) rule-breaking than younger individuals. These latter findings are compatible with studies of adults in lockdown in Italy, India, and Spain which also report that younger people demonstrate more adverse or negative psychological outcomes (Aymerich-Franch, 2020Rossi et al., 2020Singhal and Vijayaraghavan, 2020). Later, we consider the psychological trajectory that older people in lockdown may find themselves on.

Strengths and Limitations

There have been calls for research on the psychological impact of the Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic (e.g., Verger et al., 2020). By directly comparing individuals in lockdown with first-time prisoners on a wide variety of responses (including behavioral, social, thoughts and emotions), and after controlling for demographic differences between the two groups, the present research provides a way of contextualizing and interpreting a range of psychological effects of lockdown. It is reasonable to assume that, as a form of confinement, imprisonment is (and should be) worse than lockdown, thus demonstrating that people in lockdown feel the same or worse than first-time prisoners is insightful. The fact that these findings were observed in two different regions emphasizes their generalizability and robustness.

Nonetheless, there are some potential limitations of our approach. First, there is a large time gap between the two sources of data (i.e., prison and lockdown). In order to avoid the confounding effect of the COVID-19 outbreak in the prison system, we opted to use data that had been collected from prisoners before the pandemic. Our search for such data focused on studies that included a range of quantitative measures of prisoner adaptation. There is mixed evidence as to whether prison environments have improved or deteriorated over the intervening years (see Prison Reform Trust, 2020), and it is unclear if, and how, such changes would affect first-time prisoners’ subjective experiences.

Second, we compared females in lockdown to first-time, male prisoners. It is therefore, unclear if females in lockdown fare better or worse than first-time, female prisoners. According to Kruttschnitt and Gartner’s (2003) review of research on women’s imprisonment, female responses to imprisonment are similar to those found in male prisoners, although women tend to be more active in choosing their patterns of adjustment.

Third, we found that whereas people in lockdown thought less often about missing sex than did first-time prisoners, who are deprived of heterosexual relations, our study does not capture the longing for homosexual relations that have been identified in some recent research on the COVID-19 lockdown (Sharma and Subramanyam, 2020).

Fourth, at the time of data collection, the lockdown sample had spent considerably less time in confinement than the prison sample, and so they may not have had sufficient time to adapt to their situation. However, Dhami et al.’s (2007) survey of 712 adult, male US federally sentenced prisoners in three prisons (high, medium and low security), found that after controlling for sentence length and prison security level, time spent in prison was only predictive of some of the variables measured in the present research. Specifically, time spent in prison was negatively associated with disciplinary infractions and positively associated with feelings of hopelessness and thoughts about needing control over one’s life. This suggests that over time, people in lockdown may continue to feel more hopeless than before, and their frequency of thoughts about needing control over their life (which are currently less than first-time prisoners) may increase.

Directions for Future Research

Since conducting the present research, most Governments, including those in the UK and US have begun to ease lockdown restrictions. However, it is widely believed that there will be other waves of COVID-19 (Wise, 2020). If strict lockdown policies are re-imposed, then future research could explore whether people are better able to cope with lockdown. This could be done by comparing their responses to those of prisoners who have prior prison experience. Recurrent prisoners differ in their adjustment to confinement compared to first-time prisoners. For instance, whereas recurrent prisoners may demonstrate some positive adjustments such as greater psychological wellbeing and more participation in self-help programs (e.g., Souza and Dhami, 2010), they may also demonstrate some negative behaviors such as rule-breaking (e.g., Bosma et al., 2020). In the present study, people in lockdown were either more or equally compliant with the rules of lockdown as were first-time prisoners with the rules of prison, however, there may be less compliance during future lockdowns.

The fact that the isolation or shielding of those particularly vulnerable to the more severe consequences of COVID-19 such as the elderly is likely continue after any lockdown ends and perhaps until a vaccine is available, makes it imperative to understand the psychological trajectory that such individuals may find themselves on. Future research could examine if older people respond to lockdown in the same ways as older prisoners do. For instance, Maschi et al. (2015) reported that a lack of social contact can be a major source of stress and trauma for prisoners over the age of 50. In the present study, older individuals had less social contact with family and friends living elsewhere than their younger counterparts, and over time, this could serve to reduce their psychological well-being.

Finally, future research on the COVID-19 lockdown could explore factors that may predict individual’s patterns of adjustment. Prison researchers have examined the independent, relative and interactive effects of a range of pre-prison and in-prison factors in predicting adaptations to imprisonment (e.g., Dhami et al., 2007Dye, 2010DeLisi et al., 2011). In the context of the COVID-19 lockdown, this would mean, for example, measuring the extent to which factors such as quality of life before and current living conditions predict adjustment to lockdown. Patterns of adjustment can have implications for how well individuals readjust to life after lockdown restrictions end, and so the findings of such research can identify those who may require support to help them readjust.

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