Towards a lasting legacy for prisons from the coronavirus crisis

Richard Garside
Friday, 27 March 2020

In a few short weeks, we have all had to adjust to a very different reality.

In the face of the immediate threat posed by coronavirus, governments across the world have acted decisively and swiftly. The crisis has focused minds and prompted action in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.

In the UK, the government has been criticised for doing too little, too late, to contain the spread of coronavirus. Whatever the merits, or otherwise, of this as a general criticism, there is little doubt that in our prisons the potential crisis is very real, and growing.

The over 90,000 prisoners across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, unable to take the routine precautions of most citizens, are at particular risk of infection.

Yesterday we learned that an 84-year-old prisoner in Littlehey and another elderly prisoner in Manchester had died after contracting coronavirus. There will be more cases in the days ahead. Last week, researchers at Imperial College London estimated that an uncontrolled outbreak of coronavirus infection in prisons in England and Wales could result in 800 deaths.

Some consider this to be an under-estimate.

At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies we support prisoners and prison staff trying to reduce the risk of infection in prison. Next week we will be embarking on a project with a number of partner organisations to assess the coronavirus situation in prisons across Europe and explore how different prison administrations are trying, or failing, to prevent infection and save lives.

Beyond the necessary, short-term measures to reduce the harm of coronavirus in prison, we also need a longer-term agenda. Across the UK, far too many prisoners, many of them elderly or with underlying health conditions, are being held in overcrowded, unsanitary, unhealthy prisons.

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.

We can't go on like this.

Over recent weeks I have been among those calling for an immediate managed release of some prisoners, as part of a wider programme to reduce the risk of infection in prison. This is a call that is now supported by a growing number of people. The government must act on this, and now.

The wasteful churn short prison sentences cause is well-recognised. The current context should give fresh urgency to ending it. Our short prison sentencing project will be seeking to influence just that, both making the case for immediate reform as well as seeking to secure the system changes necessary over the longer term.

And through our After Prison programme, we will be making the case for the long-term closure of much our prison estate. Prisons are a nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem. There is always a better way to use a piece of land than as a place for a prison.

The coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the wider, and pre-existing, malaise in prisons. A fundamental rethink of our use of prisons would be a small, but important, gain to have come from the current crisis we are in.