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Covid has highlighted how our prisons are stuck in the past

4 min read

Coming to terms with our overuse of imprisonment and charting a way to a lower-imprisonment future, could form part of a fitting legacy of the Covid-19 crisis.

More than a quarter of all prisoners in England and Wales are held in prisons built in the Victorian-era. Some jails are even older; Brixton Prison opened in 1818. The Covid-19 crisis is prompting a major rethink of how we will live and work in the future. Yet prisons remain stuck in the past: a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

The resulting policy inertia is palpable. The per capita prison population across England and Wales is far higher than comparable European countries. Our imprisonment rate is almost twice Germany’s. Yet the government plans to spend more than £2bn on a new generation of prisons; institutions that could last well into the 22nd century and beyond.

The inertia also affects the government’s capacity to adapt to new challenges in prison, such as Covid-19. In April last year, shortly after the imposition of the first national lockdown, I was contacted by the wife of a 66-year-old prisoner, desperately worried about her husband. She feared that Covid-19 in prison would be the death of him. Several months later I was contacted again, this time by the now-former prisoner himself. He caught Covid-19 in his final week in prison, which he unwittingly passed on to his wife.

Every week, thousands of potential Covid-19 spreaders go in and out of prisons

As he explained to me: “I experienced complications caused by Covid-19, and that resulted in being admitted to hospital. I am now at home and am recovering slowly. However, both my wife’s and my health have been significantly impacted and we are both going to have to deal with the effects for the rest of our lives. My wife has long Covid which affects her breathing and I am on drugs to prevent further complications.

“The sad truth is that these health problems could have been avoided had I been released, as I feel I should have been, under the Ministry of Justice’s Covid-19 early release scheme.”

What goes on behind the prison wall rarely stays there. Every week, thousands of potential Covid-19 spreaders go in and out of prisons. Staff go to and from work. Hundreds of new prisoners arrive, hundreds at the end of their sentence are released. The extreme lockdown in prisons has prevented what could have been a far worse number of infections and deaths among staff and prisoners. Yet 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.

Controlling the transmission of Covid-19 into and out of prison will likely be more challenging in the future, as activity in the courts and the wider criminal justice system returns to pre-Covid-19 levels. Only a proactive strategy, vaccinating all prisoners and prison staff regardless of age, is likely to prevent a further wave of Covid-19 cases in prison over the next two years, according to a recent report by SAGE. Around half a million people a day are receiving a first or second vaccine across the United Kingdom. The 100,000 or so prisoners and staff across England and Wales could all receive at least one vaccine in a matter of weeks.

The inertia at the heart of prisons policy is preventing the implementation of evidence-led policies, like institution-wide vaccination programmes. It is also getting in the way of more ambitious and visionary reforms.

There is always better use for a piece of land than as a place for a prison. Coming to terms with our overuse of imprisonment, charting a way to a lower-imprisonment future, could form part of a fitting legacy of the Covid-19 crisis.


Richard Garside is the director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

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