Slow response to coronavirus led to unnecessary deaths in UK prisons, says expert

The government's slow response to recognize the impact of coronavirus on UK prisons has led to unnecessary deaths amongst its population, according to Loughborough University academic Dr Christopher Kay.

In a recently published paper, Dr Kay, Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy, states that the policies implemented were neither effective nor delivered on time, with the delay causing an increased spread of the disease throughout the prison estate.

The first cases of Covid-19 in the prison estate were confirmed in HMP Manchester on 18 March 2020, with the rate of transmission since growing exponentially.

The current prison system, which is significantly overcrowded, understaffed and containing an ageing prison population with a host of underlying medical conditions, makes the potential for severe disease and even death highly likely."

Dr Christopher Kay., Lecturer, Criminology and Social Policy, Loughborough University

"This is a concern not just for the prison estate, but also for their local communities. We have to remember that prisoners don't stay in prisons forever, many prisoners will reach the end of their sentences during this pandemic and will be released back into the community. If we do not control the spread of the disease inside prisons, this can significantly impact upon the spread of the disease in these communities.

"We must also remember the fact that not all of the people who go into prisons every day are prisoners. Significantly more prison staff than prisoners have become infected with the disease since the first cases were confirmed in March."

Recent figures suggest that 879 prison staff have tested positive for the disease, with 434 prisoners also testing positive for the disease.

In order to reduce the spread of the disease within prisons, Dr Kay argues it is important to increase the potential for social distancing measures within the prison estate. He believes that tackling the issue of overcrowding and allowing for single cell occupancy is the most appropriate way to do this.

While such attempts have been made by the Ministry of Justice, the report from Dr Kay finds that these attempts have been implemented too slowly and with little success. Within the report, he highlights several shortcomings, including:

  • In order to reduce the potential for transmission of the disease by providing single-cell occupancy, the government targeted to release circa 4,000 prisoners who were within two months of their automatic release date. This figure has been widely criticised by the Prison Governors Association, who estimated the figure closer to 15,000. To date, just 79 prisoners from this cohort have been released.
  • Further to this, government plans to release an estimated 70 pregnant women were announced on 31 March 2020, yet by mid-April, only six women had been released.
  • Whilst there has been a drive to increase temporary accommodation across the prison estate, staffing levels have not increased accordingly. It has been suggested that roughly one-quarter of all prison staff are off sick or self-isolating as a result of Covid-19.
  • The process of filing the temporary structures has also come under criticism, with Covid-19 testing measures of the new occupants unknown.

Dr Kay added: "One thing the science is clear about is that, in the case of pandemics, time is of the essence. The faster we are able to implement policies to curtail the spread of a disease, the more effective these policies will be. The delay in implementing policies which aim to reduce the spread of covid-19 in prisons has and will continue, to put the lives of prisoners and prison staff at risk."

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