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2 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:16pm

How coronavirus is spreading through UK prisons

In a personal account, an inmate explains why the next Covid-19 crisis will be inside our prisons.

By Michael Shearer

As we prepare for another week of national lockdown, my fellow prisoners and I receive a missive from Phil Copple, the director general of prisons, offering thanks for “your patience and cooperation as we work through this difficult time”. These are calming words of reassurance – but do they reflect the reality of life in prison during the coronavirus pandemic?

As the whole nation grapples with isolation, sombre news updates, supply shortages and fear of an unknown future, is being in prison, as I am, a blessing or a curse?

Our local management team of governors is visible and attempting to cope with a rapidly changing picture. We have cases of Covid-19 inside our prison, with prisoners hospitalised and a number being isolated. Like all UK prisons, overcrowding is a big issue here, with many inmates sharing cramped cells for 23 hours every day. Communal showers, laundry procedures, the need for exercise, and healthcare facilities limit the true meaning of social distancing.

Now, more than three weeks since “outbreak” status was confirmed in this prison, the Ministry of Justice appears at best muddled about what to do as the virus spreads through our prisons.

We all follow the news and know that many mistakes have been made by the government: personal protective equipment shortages, the crisis in care homes, inaccurate statistical reporting, the abrupt change of strategy after the Cheltenham racing festival and other big sporting gatherings were held in March, which would have added to the death toll. 

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The next crisis will surely be in prisons. For years, they have been underfunded and overcrowded breeding grounds for crime, drug abuse and mental health decline. When, not if, Covid-19 spreads throughout the prison population it will be an avoidable catastrophe.

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Iran is reported to have released at least 85,000 prisoners during this unprecedented global crisis. But, so far, the Ministry of Justice has released only around 50 pregnant inmates. In early April there was talk of releasing 4,000 low-risk prisoners (less than 5 per cent of the prison population), of which I am one. But this programme has been paused. With around a third of prison officers across the country self-isolating we need more action.

This is not just about our own safety, but a need to be there to support our families. Visits were cancelled in March and there is no sign of an early resumption. Yes, I hear you say that most of the population is also unable to visit family and friends, but the two-hour visits are essential for our mental well-being.

I’ll return to Mr Copple’s words of “comfort”. It’s as if he almost promised us that there would be more deaths in custody. He needs reminding that the death sentence was abolished over 50 years ago. My white-collar crime has put me in a prison with arsonists, murderers and other violent criminals. I didn’t believe death would be part of my sentence!

While the government deserves some praise for the action taken so far, it now needs to address the prison issue before there are more deaths in custody. No, not all prisoners are safe to be released, but the many that are would slim down numbers to create a safer environment for inmates and staff alike. These are unprecedented times, so take some unprecedented action. As prisoners we are told constantly that we cost the taxpayer more than £30,000 per year to be kept in these places, so let’s save money and lives before it is too late.

Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, should immediately implement the advice of the Prisoners Advice Service to slow down the emergency in our prisons by releasing the following groups of inmates:

  • Everybody over the age of 75, no matter what their conviction. (They would be tagged and strictly monitored.)
  • Those over 50 whose convictions aren’t for violent or sexual crimes.
  • People held under immigration detention powers.
  • All those with less than one year of their sentence left.
  • All prisoners with physical disabilities.
  • People awaiting extradition.
  • Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) prisoners whose IPP tariffs have expired.

Most of these proposals are supported by Nick Hardwick, the former chief inspector of prisons. All those released – not just the most dangerous – would be tagged and monitored in their community.

I am in a working prison, but almost all work has stopped. Education has stopped, the chapel is closed and most men are locked up for 23 hours every day. I have no internet access. Amid an already volatile situation, there is £2.02 to provide three meals per day for each prisoner. Something has to happen and soon.

The writer’s name has been changed to protect his identity.