UNJUST PODCAST: Prisons and Covid-19 ‘the perfect petri dish’

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UNJUST PODCAST: Prisons and Covid-19 ‘the perfect petri dish’

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen with no end in sight, the government is struggling to grapple with the reality of a prison system already in crisis being brought to its knees. 

The latest episode of UNJUST explores how the prison system is failing those who are in it as prisoners, prison staff and the wider community. 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.’ 

John Podmore

With a disproportionately high number of people with physical and mental health problems, combined with an increasingly elderly population in prison, and lack of proper enforcement of the government’s guidance around hygiene and social-distancing, former prison governor, John Podmore called our jails ‘the perfect petri-dish’ for the transmission of the virus

‘We don’t have enough breathing machines generally, nationally, and it’s going to come to a point where the government and hospitals are going to make some difficult decisions,’ the husband of one prisoner said. ‘Do you save the 80 year old elderly man or the younger man? How does it work when someone’s been convicted of murder and is serving a life-sentence?… Will they take that into account when considering his right to life?’

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham joined calls to suspend short jail sentences. ‘The remand prisoners in particular should be let out,’ he said. ‘They should also examine indeterminate sentence prisoners.’

As reported in the Justice Gap yesterday, 65 prisoners have now tested positive for coronavirus in England and Wales across 23 prisons; as well as 18 prison staff and four prison escort staff. The total number had doubled since Friday when 27 prisoners were confirmed to have tested positive. Some 3,500 employees, representing about a tenth of the workforce, are currently in self-isolation. It has been reported that three prisoners have now died having contracted the virus.

As a result of staff shortages, prisoners are locked up in their cells for up to 23 hours a day which Podmore calls ‘de facto solitary confinement’. Some prisoners have been made to carry out the job of key workers in the prison to make up for the shortage in staffing. ‘In one prison they were given their breakfast, lunch and dinner together all in one big pot because they didn’t have enough people to get to the cell to give them food,’ one prisoner’s sister told UNJUST.  

‘Some 60,000 prisoners come out of prison a year just as a matter of routine. They’re coming out into the community, out of an environment which is a perfect petri-dish for this virus. Intervention in prisons is not just helping prisoners and prisons, it’s helping the community.’
John Podmore


UNJUST (Prisons and Covid-19 ‘the perfect petri dish’) features interviews with John Podmore, Sue Beere, Charlotte Henry, and Sally Halsall.