Coronavirus: The challenge for prisons and offenders

Prisons pose a unique challenge for governments fighting the Covid-19 outbreak. This article considers the UK Government’s responses and also outlines those implemented by other countries. 

Why are prison populations at particular risk from Covid-19?  

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that prisoners are likely to be more vulnerable to the outbreak than the general population. Reasons for this include:   

  • the confined conditions in which inmates live together for prolonged periods of time; 
  • the crowded nature of many institutions creating a particularly challenging environment to minimise further spread; and 
  • prison populations typically having greater exposure to smoking, poor hygiene, weaker immune defences due to stress, poor nutrition, and other factors.  

In addition, the WHO said that prisons have an unusually high number of daily procedures that could potentially bring the virus in from elsewhere. These include staff arrivals, the transfer of prisoners from other sites, visits from family members, friends, and medical staff.  

In guidance published on 15 March, the WHO set out its recommended Covid-19 prevention measures for prisons. These focused on the following three areas:  

  • preventing the introduction of the infectious agent into prisons or other places of detention;  
  • limiting the spread within the prison; and  
  • reducing the possibility of spread from the prison to the outside community.  

Previously, on 13 March, the president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, had warned that the overcrowded nature of prisons in the UK, combined with an ageing prison population, meant that prisoners were particularly at risk from Covid-19.  

What are governments doing to tackle the outbreak in prisons? 

Countries with significant outbreaks of Covid-19 have tried to address the situation in prisons in two main ways. First, efforts to contain the spread within prisons themselves have been increased. This has included restricting visiting hours or cancelling them outright, isolating patients with Covid-19 within the prison, and ramping up disinfection and screening efforts. Second, many governments have taken steps to reduce the prison population by temporarily releasing low-risk and vulnerable inmates and reducing the sentences of those coming up for release.  

What is the current situation in England and Wales?  

As of 15 April, 13 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 and later died. A further 218 inmates and 82 prison staff had tested positive. Three prison staff are believed to have died, with around 6,200 self-isolating (12.4 percent). As at 31 December 2019, there were a total of 49,853 full time equivalent staff in post in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.  

The prisons minister, Lucy Frazer, spoke about Covid-19 in prisons in a statement on 12 March. She said the Government would

continue to operate normal regimes, with the minimum disruption, for as long as we can. This will include visits to prisoners but, in line with Public Health advice for the general public, we urge any friend or family member not to come to a prison for visit if they have any symptoms associated with Covid-19: a fever or new, persistent cough. 

The Ministry of Justice announced that prison visits were being temporarily suspended from 24 March. To help prisoners keep some contact with family members, 900 secure phone handsets with locked sim cards were issued to 55 prisons. This was to allow “risk-assessed prisoners to speak to a small number of pre-authorised contacts”.  

However, as the outbreak worsened the Government faced pressure to take more stringent action. The Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform published a joint letter sent to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland on 1 April. The groups highlighted the two deaths within prisons at that time and warned that that figure could worsen significantly if action was not taken. They raised specific concerns about staff shortages, estimating that a minimum of 10% of the prison workforce were self-isolating. The letter also warned against increasing instances of ‘cohorting’, where inmates with milder cold and flu-like symptoms were being isolated in the same cells as those with positive Covid-19 test results.  

Early prisoner releases 

On 4 April, Mr Buckland announced that up to 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales would be temporarily released. High-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent or sexual offences, those of national security concern, and those believed a danger to children, would not be eligible for early release. In his statement, Mr Buckland said that the prisoners temporarily released would be subject to stringent conditions. Those granted release would have to wear an electronic tag and would be subject to recall at short notice.  

Pregnant prisoners and new mothers 

Further measures have also been put in place to aid mothers in prison. Pregnant prisoners, as well as those who are new mothers, will be considered for temporary release. The need to find suitable accommodation for these groups has been factored into these measures. As of 14 April, 14 pregnant women or female inmates held in mother and baby units have been temporarily released. 

New single cells to be built  

Mr Buckland also announced on 9 April that 500 temporary single-occupancy cells would be built within six prisons, housing only lower risk category C and D prisoners. These would then be expanded across the prison estate to help reduce prisoners sharing a single cell. On 14 April, prisons minister Lucy Frazer told the Justice Committee that this number had increased to 2000 temporary cells.  

Offender rehabilitation programmes  

The Government has announced plans to extend the home detention curfew (HDC) scheme. HDC allows inmates serving between 12 weeks and just under 4 years to be released up to 135 days before the half-way point in their sentence to “work towards rehabilitation and resettlement in the community”. Inmates released under this scheme are subject to an electronically tagged curfew. Government plans to extend the period of release under HDC from 4.5 to 6 months were in place before the outbreak of coronavirus. However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has led to calls for the Government to accelerate and expand these plans. The Government has not yet responded directly to these calls.  

In response to the pandemic, several organisations focused on the rehabilitation of offenders have had to reduce operations and close their centres. Some have moved to a remote service. This includes:  

  • Step Together: a charity helping vulnerable people, including offenders and ex-offenders, to volunteer in the community. Step Together has ceased face to face sessions, and has advised clients not to continue with any face to face volunteering placements.  
  • Trailblazers Mentoring: a charity that aims to reduce reoffending among young people through providing volunteer mentors. It has suspended all in-prison mentoring, and moved community mentoring to a remote service.  
  • Unlock: a charity that helps people deal with their criminal records. Unlock closed its offices on 17 March, but continues to operate its helpline and offers its support remotely.  

Has the government done enough? 

Some groups have raised concerns that these measures still do not go far enough to tackle the spread of Covid-19 within prisons. On 7 April, the chief executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, Jo Farrar, told the Justice Committee that to achieve single cell occupancy, between 10,000 and 15,000 prisoners would have to be released. These measures in England and Wales are broadly in line with measures already taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

Despite this, in an evidence session to the House of Commons Justice Committee on 14 April, Lucy Frazer stated that four men had been released under plans the Government announced on 4 April. Ms Frazer also said that under the scheme, the Government was planning to release a “significant number” of prisoners that week. However, when pressed by the committee for a specific figure, the minister stated that:  

I don’t want to give precise figures because obviously that’s subject to the risk assessments taking place and the other matters to ensure that people can be released safely but I would expect that tomorrow we would have a few hundred people released and that will continue. 

How are other countries responding to Covid-19 in prisons? 

Italy  

Italy experienced prison riots in the early stage of its Covid-19 outbreak, prompted partly by restrictions on visiting hours. Thirteen inmates were reported to have died during these riots, with 59 officers injured. A number of inmates are believed to have suffocated because of fires started in cells. Alfonso Bonafede, the Justice Minister, said around 6,000 prisoners were believed to be involved in the disorder from around the country.  

On 16 March, the Italian government announced the early release of certain inmates with less than 18 months left on their sentence. There has been criticism that this will not sufficiently alleviate Italy’s already crowded prisons.  

Iran 

In the Middle East, Iran temporarily released around 85,000 prisoners in its efforts to fight Covid-19. This included the release of political prisoners. The British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016, was granted temporary release on an electronic tag for three weeks.  

However, as of 14 April, it remained unclear whether she will be returned to prison. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Radcliffe, described the current situation as a “form of purgatory”.  

United States 

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institute in the US, has issued guidance for the management of Covid-19 in prisons. Adoption of these guidelines across states has varied, with some states adopting temporary and early release policies. Others have faced disorder from inmates concerned at being exposed to Covid-19.  

A major spike in cases in New York City’s Rikers Island jail led to the release of 300 “elder” prisoners serving “light” sentences with little time remaining. Despite this, on 5 April the jail announced the death of Michael Tyson, its first inmate to die of Covid-19.  

In California, a number of prisoners serving time for murder have had their sentences reduced, while around 3,500 inmates within 60 days of the end of their sentence are set to be granted early release “within the next several weeks”. Developments in California came after lawyers acting on behalf of inmates criticised the lack of urgency. They asked federal courts for an emergency order for prison releases. The lawyers told the judicial panel that, without urgent action, “Covid-19 will spread like wildfire, overwhelming hospital capacity and needlessly infecting thousands.”  

What next? 

The House of Lords will debate the impact of Covid-19 on prisons and offender rehabilitation programmes on 23 April 2020. The tabled motion is: 

Lord German to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on the prison population and offender rehabilitation programmes. 

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