Responses to coronavirus in prison patchy and inconsistent

Richard Garside
Friday, 31 July 2020

This week we published our latest report on the coronavirus crisis in prisons.

COVID-19 in European prisons: Tracking preparedness, prevention and control compares work being done to prevent, contain and tackle coronavirus in prisons across nine European jurisdictions, including the three UK ones.

Organised around a series of questions we developed in consultation with the World Health Organisation, the report suggests a number of areas of concern. On something as basic as effective screening and risk assessment of people going in and out of prison, practice across the nine jurisdictions we reviewed was patchy and inconsistent at best.

Staff did not always have access to PPE, including when in risky situations such as collecting samples for testing. Contingency plans for managing outbreaks in prison were sometimes absent. In most jurisdictions, prisons were not fully able to isolate prisoners with suspected coronavirus symptoms.

We will be continuing to develop our work in this area in the coming months, including through the organisation of online events and further reports. We hope this week's report will be helpful to prison administrators as they continue to develop their responses to this nasty disease.

Managing the threat of coronavirus in prisons is, of course, only one of a number of possible responses. It is also not the best one. A report from the House of Commons Justice Committee, also published this week, points out that the highly restrictive lockdown arrangements in place in prisons across most of the UK, for some four months now, has had a serious impact on the mental health and well-being of prisoners and their families.

Between March and June this year, during the height of the current lockdown period, 81 prisoners died in prisons in England and Wales, at least 23 of them as a result of coronavirus. As my colleague Matt Ford argues in this piece, the decision to imprison, and not to decarcerate, in the face of the major health crisis we are facing, is a political one. The government must likewise take political responsibility for the deaths of those in custody.

Alongside immediate action in the face of the urgent situation in our prisons, we should also develop longer-term solutions. Over a number of years I and my colleagues at the Centre have supported the ongoing development of prison abolitionist and decarceral strategies, ideas and perspectives in the UK. We have put together a summer reading list of some of the highlights on our website. We will be producing lists, covering areas such as policing, and tackling violence, in the coming weeks.