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We must help our prisons in the fight against coronavirus

Strangeways Prison in Manchester, where the first case of Covid-19 in a UK inmate has been confirmed

4 min read

The State is charged with the protection and care of those in custody. That is a responsibility we should carry out with the utmost seriousness and diligence

At the time of writing this article, 113 prison staff and 75 prisoners are reportedly in isolation showing symptoms of coronavirus. We can reasonably assume these numbers will increase quickly and significantly.

Confronted with arguably the greatest challenge Britain has faced in its peacetime history, our thoughts naturally turn first to our loved ones, to the preparedness of the NHS, as well as to the immediate financial concerns that have been brought about by this cruel pandemic. That hierarchy of priority is perfectly understandable, but we must not forget the very real threat also posed to our other, often unfairly overlooked, frontline service: our prisons.

It is clear to me that in our response to this crisis we must be guided by pragmatism. The pressure currently being felt across prison estates in countries at a more acute stage in the fight against the virus offers a warning of what could be to come if we fail to take appropriate steps now.

Violent riots in Italian prisons have killed 12, whilst in Iran 85,000 inmates have been released in a bid to prevent widespread chaos. Geography has bought us a small but precious window in which we can learn from both the successes and mistakes of our international partners. In our strategy to overcome Covid-19, including in prisons, it is one we cannot afford to waste. 

To start, that means recognising that prisons are a potential hotbed for viral transmission. They are overcrowded, understaffed and often dirty. Indeed, as the justice committee recently estimated, there is a £900m backlog in prison maintenance, including in the refurbishment of cells, showers, and cooking and eating facilities, many of which are simply not fit for purpose. Rectifying these considerable deficiencies will take time – and more than is currently available to us in fighting this disease. That being said, if we move now, and at speed, I am confident we can minimise its impact.

Above all else, as in our homes, hospitals and workplaces, we need to do the basics right. Improving hygiene is essential, and I am pleased ministers have confirmed increased handwashing facilities are available to all prisoners, including in shared areas. It has also been reassuring to see the emphasis the MoJ has placed on communication.

Inmates will naturally be concerned about family and friends on the outside so maintaining contact with their loved ones will be vital to ensuring order, as will access to updates via the National Prison Radio and through disseminating health guidance.  

While the Government is determined to operate normal regimes with minimum disruption for as long as it can, it’s inevitable that a certain degree of adaptability will be required. Changes must be properly managed to avoid inflaming what is already a volatile environment. Flexibility will also have to be exercised in making additional staff available, with ministers confirming that operational staff working in headquarters will be redeployed to boost the frontline. 

We will have to think carefully about setting aside ample space in which infected prisoners can be isolated (can, for example, separate buildings be designated for this purpose?), and it may become necessary to release some individuals early, especially those who are elderly, of low risk and have underlying health conditions. Time will tell, but the contingency plans should be in place regardless.

Ultimately, just as we rightly demand that our carers, bus drivers, police officers and, of course, medical professionals are provided with the best possible protection whilst they continue to work – allowing the nation to maintain some semblance of normality – so too we should expect nothing less for our dedicated prison staff.

Equally, whatever their crime, the State is charged with the protection and care of those in custody. That is a responsibility we should carry out with the utmost seriousness and diligence, with our policies and actions reflecting that commitment.

Sir Robert Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Justice Select Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Sir Robert Neill MP - We should not send pregnant women to prison unless they have committed serious violent offences

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