How are our prisons tackling coronavirus?

Work with Offenders reviews current policy and thinking around risk within the prison system

Everyone is worried about coronavirus but we now know that two main groups are particularly at risk: older people and those with underlying health problems. Our prisons hold large numbers of both groups. We know that almost 2,000 prisoners are aged 70 or older and that 36% of people in prison are estimated to have a physical or mental disability (compare with 19% of the general population).

Many criminal justice commentators have been particularly concerned about how the government will respond to coronavirus in prisons because it’s very difficult to effectively isolate people in prison and even access to antibacterial soap, tissues, towels and sufficient cleaning equipment can be problematic at times. Indeed, almost three out of ten (29%) of men’s prisons inspected in 2018/19 failed to meet minimum standards of infection control and cleanliness.

As most readers will know, our prisons are very overcrowded with thousands of people sharing cells making the kind of self-isolation procedures recommended by the government problematic in the extreme.

A number of campaigners have been suggesting that there should be a large-scale release of low risk prisoners in order to make coronavirus easier to manage within prisons. In addition to protecting prisoners and prison staff, this measure would also protect the wider public since if COVID-19 was to become widespread within prisons, then all released prisoners (who must be released when they have served the end of their sentence) would be carrying the virus back into their local communities.

There has been no official response to these suggestions so far. However, the Ministry of Justice and Public Health England have today jointly published the first guidance on how prisons and other “prescribed places of detention” – basically immigration removal centres and the children’s secure estate – should tackle coronavirus.

The advice is straightforward and includes 10 main components:

  • any prisoner or detainee with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature should be placed in protective isolation for 7 days
  • if a member of staff or visitor becomes unwell on site with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they should go home
  • staff, prisoners and visitors should be reminded to wash their hands for 20 seconds more frequently and catch coughs and sneezes in tissues
  • frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, using your standard cleaning products
  • prisoners or detainees who have a new, continuous cough or a high temperature but are clinically well enough to remain in prescribed places of detention (PPDs) do not need to be transferred to hospital
  • confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) should be notified by prison or immigration removal centre (IRC) healthcare teams as soon as possible to local Public Health England (PHE) Health Protection Teams (HPT)
  • people who are severely unwell may be transferred to appropriate healthcare facilities with usual escorts and following advice on safe transfers
  • staff should wear specified personal protective equipment (PPE) for activities requiring sustained close contact with possible cases (see below for detail)
  • if facing multiple cases of those displaying symptoms, ‘cohorting’, or the gathering of potentially infected cases into a designated area, may be necessary
  • PPD leaders should be assessing their estate for suitable isolation and cohorting provision.

Staff are also advised to minimise any “non-essential” contact with people who are suspected of having coronavirus. For activities requiring close contacts with someone who is a possible case – the examples given are interviewing people at less than two metres distance or arresting and restraining prisoners – Public Health England advises that the minimum level of personal protective equipment that custodial and escort staff should wear is:

  • disposable gloves
  • fluid repellent surgical facemask
  • if available, a disposable plastic apron and disposable eye protection (such as face fires or goggles) should also be worn

Again, it is far from clear that prison staff routinely have access to this equipment.

It is immediately obvious that many of these pieces of advice may be difficult to implement in the prison environment.

It is clear that the government is well aware of the possible risks of coronavirus becoming endemic in the prison environment from its acknowledgement that “cohorting” – or gathering together all those who are suspected of having the virus in one place. Of course, this would almost virtually guarantee that anyone who is wrongly suspected of having the virus would catch it.

If the government is to consider early release, it clearly needs to act sooner rather than later.