The justice secretary has dismissed findings in a SAGE report that found prisoners are more likely to die of COVID-19 than people in the wider community. The report described how ‘the higher incidence of infection and the poorer underlying health of prisoners’ were likely to contribute to ‘higher levels of COVID-19 mortality in prison populations compared to the general population’.
According to data up to February 161 prisoners and probation service users have died as a result of the pandemic and some 14,480 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the report, prisons have a higher risk of infection, recording 181.2 cases per 1,000 people in February 2021 compared to a general population rate of 70.19 cases per 1000.
Robert Buckland declared himself ‘quite worked up’ about the findings in the report (as reported in Inside Time). ‘I think it’s wrong, I think it’s based upon misconceptions, I reject it,’ he said. Buckland also defended the way prisons have handled the pandemic. ‘Although we have lost people – and every death is a sadness and a tragedy – we have, I think, worked in an incredibly effective way to minimise what could have happened within the prison estate.’
‘Unfortunately, he was agitated by the awkward challenge it posed to his policies, not seized by the opportunity it presented to do something to better protect the lives of prisoners and prison staff,’ write Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. ‘… Having failed previously to implement an early release programme to get as many prisoners as possible out of harm’s way, the Justice Secretary now appears more interested in trashing serious-minded scientific analysis than in being guided by its insights.’
The current restrictions have a ‘highly negative effect on mental health of prisoners…and rehabilitation’, according to the SAGE report. Furthermore, in the absence of vaccination of staff and prisoners it was ‘likely that these measures will need to be continued for many more months’. The report recommends increasing vaccination of all prisoners and staff in order to allow faster lifting of restrictions, reduced outbreaks and decreased mortality, all of which would benefit the wider control of COVID-19. One prison vaccination model predicted it would reduce cases by 89%.
Downing Street has previously rejected prioritising vaccinations for prisons, commenting that prisoners will be vaccinated ‘at the same time as the general public’.
A separate study, led by Dr Isobel Braithwaite of UCL, found that the risk of dying for prisoners was 3.3 times higher than for people of the same age and sex living in the community. The Ministry of Justice has disputed the findings, criticising it for failing to account for the poorer health of prisoners and intake and outtake of prisoners.
Key findings of SAGE report:
- Prisons are highly prone to large scale outbreaks leading to higher rates of infection and hospitalisation and much higher levels of COVID-19 mortality than seen in the general population;
- Prisons will remain at high risk of outbreaks even when infection levels in the community are low because the importation of a single case can lead to a large outbreak;
- Prison outbreaks are frequent, large, long lasting (over a period of weeks) and difficult to control;
- Even with control measures in place there remains a significant risk that a single strain can rapidly amplify to a large outbreak, which can be very difficult to control;
- Prison outbreaks occur despite highly intensive control measures including: substantial restrictions on prisoner mixing, reverse cohorting of new arrivals, confining prisoners to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, reduced socialisation, training and exercise opportunities and stopping of visitors;
- Although the restrictions have saved lives qualitative surveys have indicated that spending up to 23 hours a day in a cell, stopping of visits from spouses, children and partners and cancellation of rehabilitative activities has had a substantial negative impact on mental health;
- Control of infection coming into the prison will become increasingly challenging as numbers of prisoners increase to normal levels; and
- Increasing early vaccination of all prisoners and staff would allow faster lifting of severe restrictions, reduce outbreaks and decrease mortality.