The missed opportunities to prevent coronavirus deaths

Richard Garside
Friday, 5 June 2020

The government and Prison Service in England and Wales think that they have a good story to tell on coronavirus in prisons.

In some respects they do.

Early on in the crisis, many feared that coronavirus would sweep through the prison system, putting hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners at risk of death and serious illness. I was among them.

To date, an estimated 23 prisoners and 10 prison staff have lost their lives to coronavirus. It could have been a lot worse.

But just as the UK has been leading Europe in the number of coronavirus-related deaths in wider society, England and Wales is quite possibly leading Europe in the number of coronavirus-related deaths in prison.

I emphasise quite possibly because accurate, comparative data, is hard to come by. That qualification stressed, this is what we have found in our work looking at other European jurisdictions. When we last collated data:

  • In Spain and Catalonia, two prisoner and three staff deaths related to coronavirus had been recorded.
  • In Hungary, no prisoner or staff deaths had been recorded.
  • In Bulgaria, no prisoner or staff deaths had been recorded.
  • In Portugal, no prisoner or staff deaths had been recorded.
  • In Italy, two prisoner deaths had been recorded.
  • In Austria, no prisoner or staff deaths had been recorded.

This is not a reliable basis for drawing any strong conclusions.

Perhaps the authorities in England and Wales have been more diligent in collating information on deaths than in other jurisdictions. The figures above cover different time periods, which limits the validity of comparisons.

But if we cannot drawn any strong conclusions, we can, at least, ask a few questions.

Had the government, back in March, put as much energy into releasing prisoners as they put into commissioning shipping container cells to expand prison capacity, would the dreadful toll of 23 prisoner and 10 staff deaths have been lower?

Had the government prioritised the release of the 5,000+ prisoners aged 60 or over, rather launching a complicated early release programme that fewer than 100 have benefited from, would some deaths have been prevented?

It could have been a lot worse than the distressing deaths of 23 prisoners and 10 staff members. But could it have been a lot better?

Prisons cannot remain in lockdown forever, and there is a clear risk of spikes in infection when the current restrictions are loosened. It is not too late for the government to approach the task of protecting staff and prisoners with more seriousness and imagination. But it does need to take that step.

Yesterday we held the first of three webinars on socially-distanced justice. We heard some excellent presentations from our four speakers, as well as some valuable contributions from the more than one hundred people who attended. You can watch the video of the event here.

Next week's webinar will be exploring the political dimensions of coronavirus, and the implications for criminal justice. You can find out more about the series, and book your place for the second and third webinars, here.