A prisons watchdog has called for improvements in the protections of prisoners during the pandemic following an investigation into 26 deaths in prisons related to COVID-19. Sue McAllister, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has made several recommendations to help improve the response within the prison system.
The latest statistics from the Ministry of Justice showed that more than 100 prisoners had died in the UK – 97 in England Wales by February 15 – and five deaths in Scotland. One in eight prisoners in England and Wales, and one in four staff, have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. Following the announcement of a lockdown in March 2020, the HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) introduced new policies in response to the pandemic. Campaign groups and charities have been critical of the response to COVID-19 within the prison system. The Prison Reform Trust has described the actions as ‘too little, too late’. In a letter to Robert Buckland QC MP, the Howard League commented that the situation in prisons was ‘inhumane and untenable.
The PPO began investigations into the deaths of 25 prisoners and 1 post-release death which were COVID-19 related and happened between 18 March 2020 and 27 May 2020. The youngest prisoner was 40 years old. The PPO noted that all 26 individuals had at least one underlying health condition which ‘contributed towards their death along with COVID-19.
In the cases investigated the PPO described that ‘in eight out of the 26 cases it was likely they caught the virus in prison’. ‘In one case it is possible that a new cell mate who had been in the community and previously shared another cell with three other prisoners who had been in the community may have passed on the virus when moved into the deceased prisoner’s cell,’ the PPO noted.
In one case study, a prisoner had shown COVID-19 symptoms but continued her cleaning job which ‘increased the risk of spreading the virus to other prisoners’. In another example, the PPO was concerned that prison staff were ‘unaware’ that a prisoner ‘was suspected of having COVID-19’ which placed staff who ‘entered his cell without PPE at risk’.
The PPO recommended that the prison service should ‘ensure all staff adhere to infection control measures’ and ‘ensure that prisoners who are displaying possible COVID-19 symptoms are isolated to protect other prisoners and staff’.