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Experiences of COVID-19 isolation in Northern Ireland prisons: a qualitative study

Ruth Gray (Healthcare in Prison Team, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Dundonald, UK)
Barry Rooney (Healthcare in Prison Team, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Dundonald, UK)
Clare Connolly (Healthcare in Prison Team, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Dundonald, UK)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 17 May 2021

Issue publication date: 18 October 2021




The purpose of this study was to capture the experience of people after completing their period of COVID-19 14-day isolation in prison. This study used in-depth interviews to assess the impact of the restricted regime.


This was a cross-sectional qualitative study using an adapted regional survey to record people’s experiences of COVID-19 isolation on entry into prison. This study began in April 2020 and continued to run over eight months. A weekly capture of people’s stories was conducted using a convenience sample. A total of 168 people participated in the study, with in-depth interviews conducted by the health-care team. Content conceptual analysis was used to quantify and analyse the themes of impact of COVID-19 isolation. This information was then used to shape iterative health-care service development.


A number of key themes have emerged from the experiences of COVID-19 isolation, including connection, communication and support. Stories highlighted how isolation had exacerbated depression, anxiety or feelings of self-harm. This was amplified by the uncertainty of the pandemic and lack of information about accessing services in the altered prison regime. A priority for people in COVID-19 isolation was contact with family. Telephone calls and virtual visits were cited as mitigating the mental health impact of social isolation. People who felt supported by health-care or prison staff reported coping with their time in isolation better. Timely, accessible information was pivotal in support, leading to development of Engagement Lead check-ins on the isolation landings. It is crucial that a public health approach is core to the COVID-19 response in prisons. The thematic analysis of the experiences has enabled a focused understanding of the impact of COVID-19 isolation and an accountability of care provision through organisational collaboration and iterative improvements to service delivery.


There is a paucity of real-time evidence of the impact of restricted regimes in prison owing to COVID-19. This study gives an important insight.



The authors would like to acknowledge the NIPS and HiP teams for their compassionate care during the COVID-19 Pandemic. They would also like to thank the men and women in custody who shared their stories to enable better service provision.


Gray, R., Rooney, B. and Connolly, C. (2021), "Experiences of COVID-19 isolation in Northern Ireland prisons: a qualitative study", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 304-319.



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