The government is treading a dangerous path in its response to Covid-19

Matt Ford
Thursday, 7 May 2020

Since early on in the pandemic prisons have received attention as potential hotbeds of contagion.

Prisons are cramped and unsanitary institutions, full of people with underlying health problems who receive inadequate healthcare whilst they’re incarcerated. They also increase the rate of spread in the community due to the daily through-flow of families and service providers visiting prisoners, staff clocking in and out, and prisoners starting and finishing custodial sentences.

Reported cases and deaths of prisoners and staff have steadily crept up since the outbreak began. As of 5pm on Sunday 3 May, 357 prisoners have tested positive for the virus and 15 have died. A Public Health England analysis published on Monday 27 April estimates that over 2,000 prisoners have potentially had the disease.

On 4 April the Ministry of Justice announced that up to 4,000 prisoners could be released to control the spread of the disease. At the time the prison population stood at 82,500, the highest in Europe. A few days later, in a submission to the Justice Committee, the Prison Governors’ Association reported that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and Public Health England required the release of 15,000 prisoners to truly safeguard prisoners and staff.

Two weeks later, when only 14 prisoners had been released, it emerged that the Ministry of Justice’s scheme had been halted as six people were let out in error. As of this week, only 33 people have been released early in response to Covid-19. By Friday 1 May, the prison population had fallen to just under 81,000, largely because courts have stopped sitting.

Other European states are well ahead of the government on this. France’s prison population is down to 62,500, a drop of 10,000 since Covid-19 hit. Italy’s prison population now stands at 65,000, a drop of 6,000. These countries have used more extensive early release schemes, as well as other measures on top of the falls in judicial activity to bring the number of people in custody down.

In contrast, the criminal justice jurisdiction of England and Wales is relying on locking prisoners in their cells for 23 hours a day and a ‘temporary’ expansion in capacity, including the installation of 500 converted shipping containers and the reopening of a notorious children’s prison formerly run by G4S, to manage coronavirus.

We should be very wary about these ‘temporary’ measures. Firstly, because they are likely to lead to other serious problems like the intensification of psychological pain, ubiquitous in prisons, which in turn will lead to more prisoners self-harming and ending their own lives. The risk of this is compounded by the fact that family visits are currently suspended, and because there is less chance of a suicide attempt being interrupted as fewer prisoners are sharing cells and 7,000 staff are off sick. 

Secondly, because it leaves the prison service very little wiggle room to prevent future outbreaks of coronavirus.

And thirdly, because the extra capacity might turn out to not be very temporary at all. The Conservative government was already committed to expanding the prison estate by 10,000 places and had budgeted £2.5 billion to build them. In 1997, the 800-place prison ship HMP Weare – a dystopian monstrosity - opened as a temporary measure to ease pressures from overcrowding. It stayed open for eight years.