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Coronavirus is a perfect storm in our overcrowded prisons

Our overcrowded prisons make it very difficult to isolate or develop social distancing, writes Lord German. | PA Images

Lord German

4 min read

Our prisons are incubators, pumping the virus and spreading it to the community both within and outside their walls. The government must accelerate the release scheme, only then will prisons have the space to isolate and undertake social distancing.

Last week’s Lords debate on the impact of coronavirus in our prisons revealed a lack of urgency and too little government action to prevent the spread of the disease.  

 The number of reported cases of prisoners and staff contracting the virus had risen from 269 to 534 last week, six times higher than it was on April 1st.  The latest report from Public Health England says the reported number for prisoners alone could be 6 times higher again.  Sadly prisoners, officers and staff have died from Coronavirus.

Our overcrowded prisons make it very difficult to isolate or develop social distancing.  The government response is to create three cohorts of prisoner, and try to isolate one from the other.  To make space for this to happen the government says it will need to early release 4000 prisoners and build 2000 temporary cells – but when asked, the government was unable to give a figure on how many new cells were now in use.

Because of a failure of testing, availability of PPE, isolation and social distancing, and the exponential rise in Coronavirus cases - our prisons are incubators, pumping the virus and spreading it to the community both within and outside their walls. For the 17,000 prisoners sharing a cell, whether the virus is contracted is truly a terrifying lottery.

Government’s key proposal is to reduce the spread of the virus by creating more space through the early release of prisoners.

Progress has been painfully slow for the government to reach even its own inadequate target of 4000.  Last week only 17 of the 70 pregnant women had been released and the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme had only released a handful.  A grand total of 33!  This rate of release is too slow, and too late to ‘save lives and avoid a public health catastrophe both within prisons and beyond’ – the words of the Secretary of State for Justice announcing the release scheme a month ago!

The scientific advice is quite clear – the risk of infection is much higher in ‘congregate settings’ like prisons.  So - the fewer the people in those settings the better.

Prisons are not places of total isolation. 50,000 staff and workers enter and leave daily. Goods and services arrive and leave. Prison staff have woefully low items of PPE equipment, and nearly a quarter of staff are self-isolating at home. The reduced numbers serving the prison population has resulted in lock ins for 23 hours at a time with often more than one person in a cell.  And this will persist for the rest of the year if government doesn’t do more.

Testing of staff is critical. Only a tiny proportion of staff have been tested, and there will be a need for almost daily tests if transmission is to be kept at a minimum.  

Expert research tells us that closed environments contribute to secondary transmission of COVID-19 and promote superspreading events.

The government response is too little and too late.  

In these exceptional circumstances, the government must accelerate the release scheme, and include vulnerable offenders and children. Only then will prisons have the space to isolate and undertake some social distancing.  We need a presumption against using short prison sentences – they don’t generally work anyway. Sending more people to prison for a short time is a double whammy to beating the pandemic.

The prison estate is now a perfect crucible for the disease. This has put prisoners and prison staff in danger. The government has failed in its duty of care, sleep walking into a crisis which it must avoid.

Prisons were already overstretched and overcrowded before Coronavirus – adding this crisis on top makes it a “a perfect storm” for our prison and probation service.


Lord German is a Liberal Democrat peer. 

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