Prisons were places of morbidity and death long before COVID-19 hit

Matt Ford
Thursday, 30 April 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has shone a spotlight on prisons as major sites of contagion.

As our director said at the beginning of the outbreak, if an institution was to be invented with the express intention of maximising the spread of coronavirus, and of concentrating it among those most likely to be vulnerable to it, that institution would probably look much like a prison.

The latest figures for prisons in England and Wales show that as of 5PM on Wednesday, 29 April, 341 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in 72 of 117 prisons, and 364 prison staff have also tested positive. A Public Health England analysis published on Monday estimates that over 2,000 prisoners have potentially been infected. Fifteen prisoners are known to have died after testing positive for the disease.

A recent paper by Richard Coker shows prisons also increase the risk of infection in the community, acting as ‘epidemiological pumps’ due to the large through-flow of prisoners and staff in and out of prisons on a daily basis. 

But as the most recent update on self-harm and suicide in prisons, released today, shows, prisons as places of morbidity and death isn’t a phenomenon specific to the COVID-19 outbreak. The statistics show that in 2019, 300 people died in prison, over a quarter of which were self-inflicted. In the same year about 13,000 prisoners self-harmed, leading to 63,000 self harm incidents, including nearly 4,000 which required hospital attendance.

This in large part reflects the astronomical rates of mental health and drug problems experienced by prisoners. Ninety per cent of prisoners are thought to have mental health issues. NHS England estimates that two in every five pounds it spends on healthcare in prison is spent on dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems, more than twice the proportion spent on those areas in the NHS budget as a whole. 

It is self-evidently cruel and unjust that prison is now so often our response to people experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems, particularly as the prison environment itself is designed to inflict deep psychological pain. 

The government in England and Wales should follow the lead of other European states and start working to significantly reduce the prison population to manage the spread of the virus amongst both prisoners and the wider community. In place of the empty prisons, we should build mental health and substance abuse services, as well as environments which are conducive to well-being

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