The pandemic in prisons could be ended in a day

Matt Ford
Friday, 26 March 2021

Up to 15 March, there have now been 15,472 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons, and 130 COVID-related deaths (105 confirmed or suspected to be due to COVID). 

The overwhelming majority of both cases and deaths occurred in the second wave in prisons. 

In the first wave, there were 27 COVID-related deaths (24 suspected or confirmed as due to COVID) and about 550 confirmed cases. In the second wave, which began in late summer / early autumn 2020, there have so far been 103 (81 suspected or confirmed to be due to COVID) deaths and 14,938 confirmed cases of the virus. 

It’s important to say that these figures were significantly below Public Health England's projections of what could occur if nothing was done to prevent and control the virus in prisons, a scenario in which there may have been 2,700 deaths and 77,800 cases.

The weekly data on cases suggests the second wave in prisons is dissipating, with sustained falls over eight weeks. 

The extreme lockdown in the first wave no doubt prevented massive loss of life. But it wasn’t without consequences. Anecdotal reports suggest the mental distress caused by the lockdown has been significant. The impacts on self-harm and self-inflicted death are so far unclear across the estate, but in female establishments self-harm rose by a quarter last summer. Education and offender management programmes have also been disrupted. 

To prevent these impacts, the prison service could have embarked on a more significant programme of prison population reduction. With far fewer people in prison, more normal regimes could be maintained, with smaller groups of prisoners spending more time out of cells and carrying out normal activities whilst being able to social distance. 

Unfortunately, as I said in November, without greater prison population reductions, another extreme lockdown was necessary to protect prisoners from illness and death in the second wave. Concerns over the mental health impacts of the extreme social isolation and lack of purposeful activity meant lockdown restrictions weren’t as stringent over the winter. Along with what appears to be higher numbers of cases in the community, this may have contributed to much higher transmission and death in prisons in the second wave compared to the first.  

It now means that it is imperative that prisoners are prioritised for vaccination. They do not have the autonomy to manage their own risk of exposure whilst incarcerated. These high-risk environments also pose an ongoing risk of transmission into the community. Now that all the groups with the highest risk of developing severe symptoms and death, including in prisons, have been vaccinated, there’s an even stronger moral case for vaccinating prisoners as quickly as possible. In purely practical terms, it probably wouldn’t be that difficult to vaccinate prisoners, as there’s only 78,000. Last week, nearly 900,000 people were vaccinated in a single day.

That's all it would take, a day, to end the pandemic in prisons.