This week the UK passed the grim milestone of over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Behind this large number is a much bigger one, counted in the millions, of lives blighted through the loss of a loved one; through illness; through the ongoing effects of long-COVID and other complications.
“I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost”, Boris Johnson said earlier this week. “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.”
Some will accept the Prime Minister's assertion. Others will doubt it. In the case of prisons, the claim rings hollow.
Early on in the crisis, the government adopted an extreme lockdown approach to managing the spread of coronavirus in prisons. It helped to contain the spread of the virus and almost certainly saved lives. It could have been a lot worse. It could also have been a lot better.
Early release schemes have been recommended by the World Health Organisation as one way of getting prisoners with health vulnerabilities out of harm's way. The government announced such a scheme for England and Wales early on in the pandemic.
A mere 316 prisoners were released under the scheme before it was discontinued last year. To put this in perspective, Northern Ireland, with a fraction of the prison population of England and Wales, has to date released 335 prisoners.
Prioritising prison staff and prisoners for vaccination is another policy the government could pursue, but has refused to do so. Earlier this week, the Bishop of Gloucester, who is also the Bishop to prisons, was the latest parliamentarian to call for such an approach.
The damage of this failure to act is being played out in the lives of prisoners and their families every day. I heard one such story earlier this week, from a recently-released prisoner. He had unknowingly contracted COVID-19 in his final week in prison, and passed it on to his wife following release. He told me:
As soon as I began to recover, I experienced complications caused by COVID-19, and that resulted in being admitted to hospital. I am now at home and am recovering slowly. However, both my wife's and my health have been significantly impacted and we are both going to have to deal with the effects for the rest of our lives. My wife has long COVID which affects her breathing and I am on drugs to prevent further complications.
The sad truth is that these health problems could have been avoided had I been released, as I feel I should have been, under the MoJ’s COVID-19 early release scheme.
Prisoners and their families have had their health damaged, some have died, due to the stubborn refusal of ministers to pursue policies that might have kept more of them out of harm's way.
It may be a relatively small scandal within a much larger scandal. It is a scandal nonetheless.
There are worrying signs that the new, more contagious, strains of the virus are spreading through our prisons. A government that wants to do everything it can to prevent unnecessary deaths in prison needs to do a lot better.
Our latest briefing, Coal today, gone tomorrow: How jobs were replaced with prison places by Phil Mike Jones, Emily Gray and Stephen Farrall is out today.
The report reveals that prison-building programmes since the 1960s have been disproportionately concentrated on sites such as former coal mines, factories and chemical works. Has prison-building become one of the go-to regeneration tools in the former industrial heartlands of England and Scotland?
Join us for our webinar conference, After Strangeways running over five days between 22 - 26 February. A diverse range of speakers will discuss the legacy of the Strangeways protest, the present condition of the estate and the future of imrpisonment. Check out the full line up, topics being discussed and book your tickets.
The second in our three-part webinar series on coronavirus in prisons - COVID-19 in prisons: strategies for preventing infection and death one year on - is now open for registration. Speakers will be announced shortly.
News and Commentary
Read the latest in our series on prisons policy, women and transgender prisoners by Debbie Hayton, who urges the prison service to work with facts, not fiction and calls for protections for women and transwomen in prison. If you have an informed position on this issue that you'd like to write about, why not get in touch to discuss writing for us?
An eye on criminal justice
After being granted a judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) Rape Policy, a coalition of women's rights organisations faced the CPS at the Court of Appeal this week. The review will weigh up weather changes to CPS policy on the prosecution of rape and processes for escalating rape cases through the system are lawful or not. This comes after revelations in 2019 that only 1.4 per cent of all reported rapes were prosecuted in England and Wales, effectively decriminalising rape. Follow updates from the Centre for Women's Justice who are providing legal representation to End Violence Against Women Coalition for the judicial review.