The pandemic has affected many aspects of our society with clear impacts on public health as well as compounding social and economic issues. These have become more burdensome as the virus has continued to detrimentally spread across most countries for over eight months. In this article, I draw attention to the consequences of Covid-19 on the prison system, which are stark both for inmates in the UK and across the world.
With a recent outbreak reported in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison, the BBC has reported that “two inmates and five staff” had confirmed positive Covid-19 tests. A further 250 inmates are now in lockdown in this prison. Following this are renewed calls for changes in prison procedures to create effective and safe distancing. This will minimise the dangerous threat to life outbreaks in prisons pose. The need to mitigate prisoners exposure, and provide transparent support to family members, continues to be a key concern of civil society organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust in the UK.
Prisons and Transmission
Those in detention have limited capacity to control their own health under normal penitentiary conditions and these have only worsened as prisons initiated their own lockdowns. New restrictions on prison life at the height of the pandemic mean ‘the majority of prisoners remain locked in their cells for at least 23 hours a day’. According to Dr Miranda Davies, writing for the NuffieldTrust, this excludes visitations and becomes a form of solitary confinement, with little meaningful contact with other people.
As we saw in care homes and cruise ships, prisons are hotbeds for outbreaks of the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2. This is because these institutions all feature densely populated and tightly packed living conditions, which are impossible to avoid and hard to compensate for. Additionally, adapting to protect life against a pandemic has been challenging for the penal system. The Howard League for Penal Reform cited that there are continuing issues with overcrowding with prisons in England and Wales, holding 3,538 people over the 75,582 carrying capacity. It has also been reported that Scotland’s prisons have been on the brink of overcrowding for several years now with numbers rising over 8000. Scott Macnab reports for The Scotsman that national services are under immense pressure creating a triple threat ‘to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability’.
Historically infections have spread rapidly within prisons. In the 1990s the tuberculosis outbreak was ‘up to 100 times higher than that of the civilian population’ in prisons according to the World Health Organisation. Similarly, we know and expect that COVID infections and deaths in prisons will be far above that of the general population. This inevitability means that further action needs to be taken to mitigate further tragedy. Pressure must be placed on the government and the House of Commons Justice Committee to safeguard all human life in this unprecedented time.
The legacy of Covid-19
The impact of a pandemic on our prison system is multifaceted but the outlook for prison life continues to be bleak. Notably, Covid-19 is a setback for restorative justice as further exposure to harsh prison conditions will only limit the success of reintegration programmes.
Covid-19 is further disenfranchising prisoners, whilst also threatening their personal health. The Prison Reform Trust highlights that ‘lockdown conditions in prison have effectively ended opportunities for prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities and progress in their sentences’. We must do more to directly combat ‘increasing despair and hopelessness’ faced by prisoners and their families. The strain of the pandemic cannot be ignored and current measures have failed to address gaping holes. More must be done to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those in detention.