The paper emerged from a unique collaboration with Patricia Gilheaney (former Chief Inspector of Prisons) examining the experience of ‘cocooning’ in Irish prisons. In addition to the paper, Dr Joe Garrihy and Dr Ian Marder gave a plenary presentation at the North South Irish Criminology Conference 2022 at the University of Limerick.
The advent of COVID-19 prompted the enforced isolation of elderly and vulnerable populations around the world, for their own safety. For people in prison, these restrictions risked compounding the isolation and harm they experienced. At the same time, the pandemic created barriers to prison oversight when it was most needed to ensure that the state upheld the rights and wellbeing of those in custody.
Early in the pandemic, Dr Marder, Dr Garrihy and Ms Gilheaney cooperated to hear the voices of people ‘cocooning’ – isolated because of their advanced age or a medical vulnerability – in Irish prisons by providing journals to this cohort, analysing the data, and encouraging the Irish Prison Service to change practices accordingly. The findings indicated that ‘cocooners’ were initially ambivalent about these new restrictions, both experiencing them as a punishment akin to solitary confinement, and understanding the goal of protection. As time passed, however, participants reported a drastic impact on their mental and physical health, and implications for their (already limited) agency and relationships with others, experienced more or less severely depending on staff and management practices.
The paper also discusses the implications for prison practices during and following the pandemic, understanding isolation in the penological context, and collaboration between prison oversight bodies and academics.