Our latest eBulletin

Friday, 15 January 2021

Should prisoners and prison staff be among the priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination?

Should prisoners and prison staff be among the priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination?

It was a question posed this week by the MP Zarah Sultana during a meeting of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

"Prisons are a high-risk setting for transmission, as well as hospitals, nursing homes and schools", she said to the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi. She continued:

There would be considerable challenges if there was an outbreak in this setting, and vaccinating detainees is both good for public health and a humane approach to a completely disenfranchised population.

Has the government considered prioritising vaccinating detainees, as well as those who work in prisons?

No, was the answer. The government would continue to vaccinate according to age cohorts, rather than prioritising any particular group or institutional setting.

This is short-sighted and elevates the risk of wider community infection and reinfection.

Every week, thousands of potential COVID-19 spreaders go in and out of prisons. Staff go to and from work. Hundreds of new prisoners arrive, hundreds at the end of their sentence are released.

Prisons act as 'epidemiological pumps', the public health expert Richard Coker pointed out last year, circulating COVID-19 from the community into prison and back out to the community.

Compared with the general population, those in prison are typically less healthy and have a greater prevalence of underlying health conditions that increase the risk of serious illness.

These considerations led Professor Seena Fazel of the University of Oxford to argue that "people in prison should be among the first groups to receive any COVID-19 vaccine to protect against infection and to prevent further spread of the disease".

On a practical note, vaccinating the entire prison population and all prison staff in a matter of weeks would be relatively easy to do. There are around 100,000 prisoners and prison staff across England and Wales. Last week the NHS delivered more than one million vaccines.

Vaccinating all prisoners and prison staff, and doing so now, would deliver disproportionate benefits in the fight against coronavirus.

With emerging evidence that coronavirus infections and deaths in prison are rising sharply, a government that claims to be guided by the science appears to be putting base political calculation ahead of decisive action to protect public health.

Richard Garside


Our webinar conference, After Strangeways running over five days from 22 - 26 February is filling up quickly.

The events will discuss the Strangeways protests, the implications and causes, as well as the current state of prisons and their future.

Find the full speaker lineup, topics of discussion and register.

We're planning the second webinar in our three-part series on coronavirus in prisons. Keep an eye out for our next newsletter, which will have an update on registrations.

News and Commentary

In December, our director, Richard Garside told The Independent that the only thing standing in the way of vaccinating those in prisons against COVID-19 is politics. Read more from Richard on the"eminently deliverable" goal to vaccinate prisoners

In December, the Women and Equalities Commission closed responses to the consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Read our response focusing on women in prison, single-sex spaces and trauma-informed care.

We kicked off our Critical Care series this week, which will be a rolling set of articles exploring how individuals working within criminal justice and the voluntary and community sector reflect on their work. The first article, by Charlie Weinberg, Khatuna Tsintsadze and Whitney Iles is a discussion on psychoanalysis and creating space to reflect on roles and practices. 

This month Mike Guilfoyle looks back on a transitional time in probation culture where Mike could see a hard-edged actuarial ethos seeping into the service.

Coming soon: we will be publishing a briefing by Stephen Farrall, Phil Jones and Emily Gray from the University of Derby on prison building, politics and economics.

An eye on criminal justice

The House of Lords this week voted against the continued use of child informants by the police and MI5 in a set of amendments to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. A second amendment passed which will prohibit undercover officers from committing serious crimes, such as rape and torture, on the job. A third proposed amendment was defeated, which had called to strip away immunity from undercover officers. 

To read more on spycops and undercover policing, take a look at our back catalogue on the issue.

Update on coronavirus in prisons

The second wave in prisons is deadlier than the first, according to Matt Ford who gives a rundown on the latest release of Ministry of Justice data on COVID-19 infection levels in prisons.

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