Prison officers continue to flout rules enforcing the use of face masks despite government guidance compelling prison officers to wear ‘appropriate PPE’ and use social distancing measures when interacting with prisoners. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 72 prisoners and individuals on probation have died after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Guardian’s prison correspondent Eric Allison claims to have evidence that since the start of the pandemic, prison staff ‘have not worn face masks on a regular basis. And in many jails they are still not doing so.’ The journalist flagged letters to the prisoners newspaper Inside Time that prison officers were coming into prisons ‘day in, day out have not been following this most basic of Covid rules’. Inside Time compiled several reports of prison officers failing to wear masks prior to the publication of a three-tier strategy in prisons, such as HMP Moorland, HMP Birmingham, HMP Wandsworth, and HMP The Verne.
The Ministry of Justice has rejected the report, ‘We’ve consistently followed the latest public health advice,’ a spokesman told Allison. ‘All staff have access to PPE and wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible.’ In October last year, the Inspectorate of Prisons set out the three-tier strategy, ranging from tier one, where masks would be ‘mandatory’ in any instances of non-socially distanced engagement; tier two, where masks would be determined on the basis of individualised risk assessments; and tier three, where officers would not be obliged to wear masks, but may be encouraged to do so.
However, concerns have been raised about the timing and implementation of this strategy. Mark Pimblett, the assistant general of the Prison Officers Association said that his group had continually asked the MoJ for a face mask strategy since the start of the Covid pandemic. Peter Clarke, the recently retired Chief Inspector of Prisons, noted in the 2019-2020 annual report that it had been ‘difficult to get accurate information from the Prison Service on the state of Covid restrictions in prisons.’
While the guidance appears to have increased the use of masks by prison officers, there have also been indications that prison officers still refuse to wear masks, despite the Government Guidance. In HMP Northumberland, for example, one prisoner reported two cases of COVID-19 in his wing, where ‘no one is wearing a mask, least of all the staff’, because ‘they don’t want to’.
The indications of a relaxed approach to masks for some prison officers contrasts with the measures that have been implemented for prisoners. Since the beginning of the pandemic, prisoners have been compelled to spend approximately twenty-three hours within their cells in order to contain the risk of outbreaks, a measure that has led the Chief Inspector of Prisons to caution about the ‘irreparable damage’ to prisoners’ mental health. Similarly, the Prison Reform Trust has warned about the ‘lockdown conditions’ in prisons, which have ‘effectively ended opportunities for prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities’.