Second wave of Covid-19 in prisons

Submitted by AWL on 5 January, 2021 - 6:08 Author: Matt Ford

Prisons in England and Wales are currently in the middle of a second wave of Covid-19. After a lull in cases and deaths over the summer, confirmed infections began to climb again in September, and rocketed in October and November.

There were 883 new confirmed cases in October, and at least 1,464 in November. This compares to only a handful of cases over the summer months. October also saw five new Covid-related deaths, after none since June. There were at least ten additional Covid-related deaths in November. From the official data it is too soon to tell whether cases are levelling off.

It appears as if the second wave is worse than the first in terms of cases, but as yet it is not as deadly. Cases dropped quite rapidly after April, when the prison service implemented a strategy to contain outbreaks and prevent new infections entering prisons. Initial modelling by Public Health England suggested there could be 77,800 cases and 2,700 deaths amongst prisoners without mitigation measures.

By the end of May, there had been 480 confirmed cases and 1,385 probable/possible cases recorded before improved testing capacity meant that from mid-April all symptomatic prisoners were tested.

The strategy employed by the prison service involved implementing a highly restricted regime in prisons to enable social distancing, and compartmentalisation of the estate. Under the new regime, the following were suspended: social visits, all education, training and non-essential employment activities, access to gyms, religious and general association. Most prisoners spent more than 23 hours a day in their cells due to restrictions on the numbers allowed out at any point in time.

Transfers of prisoners between prisons were significantly reduced. Within prisons, ‘cohorting’ strategies were implemented. These included ‘protective isolation units’ to accommodate known or probable cases, ‘shielding units’ to keep the highest risk prisoners, identified through the health service, away from the general prison population, and ‘reverse cohorting units’ to hold new receptions or transfers to prison in quarantine for 14 days so any infection could be detected.

In order to achieve this compartmentalisation, ‘head room’ of around 5,000 to 5,500 places needed to be created in a notoriously overcrowded estate. The suspension of court activity in April and May provided a drop in the prison population totalling more than 5,000, or 6%, as of 4 December. Capacity was expanded by installing about 900 temporary single occupancy cells and opening a wing of a closed children’s prison.

A number of early release schemes, including release of ‘low risk’ prisoners within two months of the end of their sentences and pregnant women and new mothers, ended up in the release of just over 300 people, despite initial indications that up to 4,000 could be released. The main scheme was paused in August.

It is important to note that Public Health England said that the best form of compartmentalisation is single cell occupancy, but that this would require a drop in the prison population of about 15,000. Interestingly, this was supported by the Prison Governors’ Association.

The restricted regime began to be eased over the summer and into Autumn, with different prisons moving at different speeds based on local circumstances. Anecdotal evidence suggests the restricted regime had significant impacts on the mental health of many prisoners, particularly for women separated from their children. The official statistics on self-harm and suicide in prisons actually show decreases in the months of the lockdown, although, as the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons indicated, further analysis is required to understand this properly. Access to health services has become even more difficult for prisoners, and rehabilitative and educational programmes have been disrupted.

The data suggests that it is difficult to prevent outbreaks in prisons whilst infection levels in the community are high without imposing a highly restrictive and oppressive regime. These regimes are potentially dangerous to prisoners, and mean they are resigned, even more than usual, to being warehoused without any purposeful activity.

A much bigger reduction in the prison population is now required to enable a more normal regime where social distancing can be observed. Calls by the Prison Officers’ Association to make certain aspects of the restricted regime permanent should be resisted.

• For an earlier report by Matt, in May, see here.

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