Close prisons and redevelop the land to address racial inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 

Matt Ford
Sunday, 19 April 2020

Last week, the government announced a review into emerging evidence that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

A report by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that a third of people critically ill with COVID-19 were black and minority ethnic, compared to 18 per cent in the wider UK population.

Analysis by the Guardian found that of 53 NHS staff known to have died from COVID-19, 68 per cent were BME. This compares to 20 per cent of overall NHS staff being BME, and 44 per cent of NHS medical staff. All of the first ten doctors to die with COVID-19 were BME.

You might think this is a weird anomaly. As colleagues and I highlighted some years ago, if you’re a person of colour in Britain, compared to white people, you are likely to experience inequalities in terms of poverty, education, employment and earnings, personal finance, health, violence victimisation, housing and pollution. Often this is true even if those white people have similar backgrounds to you. 

Wider racial inequalities in society are, notoriously, reflected in the justice system. So much so that David Cameron launched a review into racial inequality in criminal justice, lead by David Lammy, which reported in 2017.

Staggeringly, Lammy’s review revealed that black disproportionality in prisons in England and Wales is greater than in the US. The latest figures show that in this country, one in every eight prisoners is black, despite the fact that only one in every 30 people in the wider population is black.

As well as being deeply unfair, this disproportionality also puts BME people at greater risk of catching diseases. In his recent paper, Professor Richard Coker pointed out that prisons provide the perfect environment for contagious diseases to wreak havoc, and even act as major sites of transmission into the wider community due to the high through-flow of prisoners and staff.

There is a strong case for prisons to be emptied as a matter of urgency to protect public health. 

But in the recovery there is also an opportunity to rectify some of the racial injustices I’ve highlighted here. Rather than fill the prisons back up, they should be closed, and the land redeveloped to address the stark racial inequalities which exist in our society.

Some examples of the kinds of redevelopment options that closing a prison might offer include: inclusive education and employment; green open spaces on sites in densely populated urban areas; good quality, affordable and uncrowded social housing; sports and fitness facilities; and health services, including public health interventions that reduce people's risk of experiencing violence. 

Of course, the people most qualified to determine what kinds of things should be provided on land rather than prisons are the communities who live around them. In our new project, After Prison,  we are working with communities around specific prisons such as HMP Brixton to develop plans for how the land prisons occupy might be better used for the benefit of the local community.

There is always a better use for a piece of land than as a place for a prison.