‘Race against time’ to stop spread of coronavirus in prisons

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‘Race against time’ to stop spread of coronavirus in prisons

Prison officer checking cell at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison

Two leading prison reform charities have called on ministers to take greater steps  to reduce the prison population in light of concerns about the pandemic and that failure to act immediately could lead to loss of life on ‘an unprecedented scale’.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust in an open letter to the secretary of state for Justice, Robert Buckland, welcomed the decision to release pregnant women and young mothers in mother and baby units called for the release of prisoners who who are medically vulnerable or present a low risk of harm. The calls are supported across the sector, including the  Prison Governors’ Association who called for a decision to be ‘made and implemented immediately’  and the Prison Officers’ Association which backs  the decision to release prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody has stated that the government ‘should embark without further delay’ on a programme of releases to ‘meet its obligation to take active steps to protect lives’.

According to the Ministry of Justice as of Tuesday 31 March, 69 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus across 25 prisons; plus 14 prison staff and four escort staff. Three people in prison have died.


Check out the UNJUST podcast on the pandemic in our prisons. Calum McCrae speaks to prisoners, their families on the outside and experts. ‘They’re somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother,’ the sister of one prisoner told UNJUST. ‘They must be so scared in there.’


The letter has been published alongside a report by Professor Richard Coker, emeritus professor of public health at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (here) which states that the risk of exposure to the virus to prisoners and staff is ‘far, far greater’ than the risks to individuals in the wider community. Coker argues that social distancing measures are ‘almost impossible’ in prisons.

‘The government is in a race against time to curb the spread of coronavirus in prisons and protect the wider public,’ commented Frances Crook, the Howard League’s chief exec. ‘Many more lives will be lost unless urgent action is taken to reduce the number of people behind bars.’

Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust argue that England and Wales is out of step with other countries. France has announced the release of some 5,000 prisoners, as well as reducing short-term prison sentences and bringing down the number of entrants into the system from 200 per day to about 30. In California, 3,500 inmates are to be released early.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called on the government ‘follow the science’. ‘That makes it very clear that reducing the number of people in prison is crucial to controlling the spread of infection, not just in prisons but in the communities to which prisoners return on release and staff return every day.’

The  two groups argue that the ‘window of opportunity’ to save lives is closing. ‘As large shared spaces, prisons act as “epidemiological pumps”, which can drive the spread of disease among the wider community,’ they say. ‘Explosive coronavirus outbreaks within large shared spaces have acted as preludes to wider transmission among the general population, as has been seen in a cluster of cases associated with a ski-chalet in France and in church and hospital clusters in South Korea.’