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When the coronavirus crisis hit last year, many of us were deeply worried about the prospect of its spread through the prison system, and the severe illness and death that would follow in its wake.
The spread of any disease, Professor Richard Coker observed at our webinar on COVID-19 and prisons earlier this week, is down to three factors: the nature of the pathogen; the nature of the host; and the nature of the environment. On the face of it, prisons, with their closed environments, offer an excellent environment for the spread of disease.
At the start of the crisis, he had estimated that there could be up to 800 COVID-related deaths in prison. This was a “very reasonable estimate”, according to one of our other speakers, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Professor Nick Hardwick. Other estimates were even more dire.
By the end of last month, some 134 prisoners had died as a result of COVID-19, lower than the predictions, though still a terrible toll. The extreme lockdown of prisons – with prisoners being held in their cells for more than 22 hours a day – was a key factor, according to Nick Hardwick. It was precisely the nature of the prison environment – easy to lockdown and restrict movements – that was the crucial factor.
The problem, as he pointed out, is what happens when we ease restrictions, and prisoner numbers start rising again as the courts backlog eases. Will we see a rise in the deaths?
The argument for priority vaccination of prisoners and prison staff therefore remains strong, not least of all because it will enable a swifter and safer relaxation of lockdown conditions in prison than would otherwise be the case.
As University College London researchers argued just this week, the COVID-19 death rate among prisoners is more than three times the rate among people of a similar age and sex in the general population.
As with other matters related to prisons, the real barriers to prioritising prisoners for vaccination are political, not scientific.
This week we held the second of three webinars on COVID-19 in prisons focusing on strategies for preventing infection and death. You can now watch the video and if you attended, we'd love to hear your thoughts.
This month's article by Mike Guilfoyle recounts a bruising judicial encounter.
The Secret Prisoner, someone with recent first-hand experience of the prison system, evaluates finds wanting the two strategies put in place by the Ministry of Justice to address COVID-19 in prisons.
Ben Stanford and Rona Epstein call for the end to the criminalisation of poverty. Punishing people in the hope that the problem simply disappears from the UK's streets is not a credible solution.
This week, Roger Grimshaw writes about the paradox of current imprisonment policy.
The pledge to create thousands of new prison places will increase the temptation to use imprisonment as a sop to demands for increased public safety and protection of the vulnerable. All the while, the impulse to improve conditions for communities and support struggling families will be weakened.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons this week. Objections to the legislation are many, including the disproportionate penalisation of travelling communities, the extension of powers to the police, the implications for racial justice, and the curtailment of the democratic right to protest. This piece of legislation also looks set to usher in - as promised - tougher sentencing, an increased prison population and electronic monitoring regime. Both sentencing reform and electronic monitoring are on our radar.
The judicial review launched by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition found this week that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had no case to answer for low rape prosecutions. The claimants, the EVAW and Centre for Women's Justice, have requested an appeal and called for continued support.
The traumatic events surrounding Sarah Everard's disappearance and death, and the awful scenes of police officers confronting those at the Clapham Common vigil, have raised again the question of institutional sexism in the police and the problem of male violence towards women and girls. The Guardian published a piece this week by Maya Wolfe-Robinson and Vikram Dodd on the now further diminished trust in the ability of the police to address and tackle violence towards women.
Keep an eye out for our forthcoming publication presenting our analysis of the legitimacy and principles of electronic monitoring.