Limited research focuses on the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on system-involved populations. Building on prison-specific applications of social support theory (Cochran & Mears, 2013; Meyers et al., 2017), this study focuses on social support, resources, and service access for incarcerated young people during the pandemic. The goals of this study were to (a) describe the value of social contact and support, as a potential promotive factor to their success in prison and beyond, (b) investigate the impact of the pandemic on this population, particularly related to stress and trauma, and (c) explore the consequences of the pandemic on access to social support, services, and coping resources.
Semi-structured one-hour confidential phone interviews were conducted with a random sample of 30 incarcerated youth (ages 17-21 years; 78% Black, 23% Latino) housed in an adult prison-based program. All interviews were recorded and auto-transcribed, then manually corrected for accuracy by trained research assistants. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith et al., 2009) was used to process data about lived experiences of relationships, stressors, and resources in enduring the pandemic while incarcerated. Especially considering the demographic makeup of the sample, following best practices for research with diverse groups (Burlew et al., 2019) was important to these researchers, including avoiding survey instruments primarily tested with white youth and families, and engaging youth voice throughout the process.
Youth interviewees described how contact with family, partners, and friends directly and positively affects their ability to cope with the conditions of incarceration and the pandemic. Subthemes emerged about relationship functions, needs, and stressors, and reduced access to services and resources. Hope for the future was the most frequently identified benefit of social contact, followed by moral guidance and goal maintenance. An additional subtheme emerged regarding interviewees’ sense of obligation and efforts to support their families.
Interviewees consistently reported that the pandemic has brought about increased uncertainty and stress, specifically around health risk, delays in legal proceedings and program availability, and most frequently, family contact. Most interviewees indicated that the pandemic resulted in reduced frequency of contact with their social supports. Video visits increased access to family for some and presented new barriers for others.
These findings contribute to existing research (e.g., Poehlmann, 2005) that documents the importance of family involvement in instilling hope and improving mental health. It is hypothesized by scholars that there may be a disproportionate and long-term impact of the pandemic on prison populations, including effects on mental health and family relationships which are developmentally crucial. There is also a possibility that the pandemic is further exposing the need for carceral system reform.
This study implicates programmatic and policy changes that support enhanced quantity and quality of social contact. While recognizing that improving access to services during a pandemic is challenging, there is a need to develop options and mitigate barriers. Suggestions include unconditionally prioritizing family contact and minimizing access issues, eliminating isolation, improving mental health services, and providing other services that may help youth improve the quality of their relationships.