When the coronavirus crisis hit last year, many of us were deeply worried about the prospect of its spread through the prison system, and the severe illness and death that would follow in its wake.
The spread of any disease, Professor Richard Coker observed at our webinar on COVID-19 and prisons earlier this week, is down to three factors: the nature of the pathogen; the nature of the host; and the nature of the environment. On the face of it, prisons, with their closed environments, offer an excellent environment for the spread of disease.
At the start of the crisis, he had estimated that there could be up to 800 COVID-related deaths in prison. This was a “very reasonable estimate”, according to one of our other speakers, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Professor Nick Hardwick. Other estimates were even more dire.
By the end of last month, some 134 prisoners had died as a result of COVID-19, lower than the predictions, though still a terrible toll. The extreme lockdown of prisons – with prisoners being held in their cells for more than 22 hours a day – was a key factor, according to Nick Hardwick. It was precisely the nature of the prison environment – easy to lockdown and restrict movements – that was the crucial factor.
The problem, as he pointed out, is what happens when we ease restrictions, and prisoner numbers start rising again as the courts backlog eases. Will we see a rise in the prisoner deaths?
The argument for priority vaccination of prisoners and prison staff therefore remains strong, not least of all because it will enable a swifter and safer relaxation of lockdown conditions in prison than would otherwise be the case.
As University College London researchers argued just this week, the COVID-19 death rate among prisoners is more than three times the rate among people of a similar age and sex in the general population.
As with other matters related to prisons, the real barriers to prioritising prisoners for vaccination are political, not scientific.