In prisons, however, all the signs are that, far from being slowed, the onward march of coronavirus is accelerating. The number of prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 in England and Wales has doubled in a week. At least ten prisoners have died since the outbreak began. There will surely be more.
Prisons, by their nature, are potential hotbeds for the transmission of the coronavirus among those most vulnerable to infection and its most acute effects. Prisoners do not have the freedom to take the kinds of precautions we’re all taking to limit the contagion and reduce our risk of exposure.
What are the implications of the release policy? With the whole country under effective lockdown it is uncertain just what the risks of re-offending might be during the emergency we are currently experiencing. The use of electronic monitoring with prisoners approaching the end of their detention marks a step in using such measures to reduce the prison population, but should not be over-estimated.
One recurring memory in particular prompted this post. When I first was introduced to Sharky (not his real name) it was in a slightly unconventional setting. I had just left a local community drug agency, following the conclusion of a separate three-way meeting, when a hoarse voice called out my name, or at least it sounded like my name. ‘Are you Mr Gifford (sic)?’.
This is a sensible response to simply allow these women to follow government guidance to minimise social contact. Pregnant women are one of a number of groups who are currently recommended to do so. It is also a step woefully behind much of Europe’s management of coronavirus in prisons.
In the face of the immediate threat posed by coronavirus, governments across the world have acted decisively and swiftly. The crisis has focused minds and prompted action in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
Prisons provide the perfect environment for contagious diseases to wreak havoc. They are crowded, cramped, unsanitary institutions with inadequate healthcare provision for a population already in poor health. On top of that, in Britain we have an ageing custodial population, with many prisoners now in the age groups at greatest risk of complications from coronavirus.
Many more prisoners will become seriously ill with Covid-19. Some will die.
The event discussed best practices in tackling issues of serious violence and county lines. Since this meeting unprecedented socio-economic interventions have been introduced to address the Coronavirus public health crisis to meet needs and reduce risks from unnecessary suffering.
To be interned is to have your ordinary rights denied and to be subjected to, amongst other things, gross over-crowding, living in abhorrent conditions, abuse, constant violence, inadequate health and mental care and overuse of isolation. No wonder then that when word got out, in April 1990, that the prisoners at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison had taken action to object to the intolerable, it sparked a series of disturbances in prisons across the whole of Britain.
The death of 15 year-old Philip Knight while on remand in Swansea prison, just a few months after the Strangeways protest started, triggered an outcry in the media and Parliament; such was the shock and anger, a television documentary was made about him. Adopted as an infant, Philip started showing behavioural problems from around the age of seven, and was ‘returned’ to care aged 14.
This evoked a poignant memory of my supervisory relationship with Sergio (not his real name) after I had recently transferred to working in a probation office in Central London. For many years prior to this change of work setting, I had been pondering an emotionally unsettling memory, resulting from what I regarded at the time as a callously offhand comment made by a senior probation officer following the death of one of my female clients from a drug overdose.
These demands, largely from prison officers and their union The Prison Officers Association (POA), have pointed to the increasing risk of violence to prison officers from prisoners. Such calls, and the recorded data on prison officer assaults, has entered the public debate with very little controversy. Yet there is a glaring omission in contemporary debates about physical violence in prison – the violence of prison officers.