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Prisons and Covid-19 – what went right?

Professor Nick Hardwick

Wednesday 18 November 2020


Nick Hardwick has held a part-time role as Professor in Criminal Justice at the School of Law, Royal Holloway University of London since 2016. He was Chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales from 2016-2018, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons from 2010 to 2016, and from 2003 to 2010, the first Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.


Like the country as a whole, prisons in England and Wales are now in their second period of lockdown. But – and frankly to many people's surprise – unlike the country as a whole, by most indicators prisons performed better than expected in the first wave of the epidemic.

Now the number of prisoners testing positive is rising alarmingly, with October seeing outbreaks in more than a third of prisons. If prisons follow the same pattern as the community, the fear is that the surge in infections will be followed by a surge in deaths. It's vital that the right lessons are learnt from the first wave of the epidemic as prisons battle the second wave.

Back in March, few institutions seemed less able to cope with the epidemic than prisons. Described by MPs as in an 'enduring crisis', prisons struggled with record levels of suicide, violence and self-harm. Many prisons were dilapidated, cramped and overcrowded Victorian buildings with little space for 'social distancing'. Prisoners themselves had poorer health than the population as a whole, Black and Asian prisoners – groups found to be most at risk in the community – were grossly over-represented. Older prisoners were the most rapidly growing part of the prison population.

Small wonder then that predictions of the impact of the virus on prisons were dire. Public Health England estimated that without drastic action 2,700 prisoners might die - and even if that action was taken, the death toll would be 100. Riots in Italian prisons in March raised fears the same thing would happen here when lockdown was imposed. Warnings were given that prisons might become vectors for transmission of the virus into the community. Yet by the end of August, as the lockdown was eased, just 27 prisoners had died from COVID-related causes, far fewer than predicted. It's hard to think of any other institutions where you could say the same.

So what went right? On the day after the national lockdown was imposed, the prison service instituted its own lockdown. Action was prompt, decisive and severe. Family visits, work and education were halted and prisoners spent almost all day, every day locked in their cells. To compensate, a rapid roll out of secure mobile phones and family video-conferencing facilities was implemented. With much grumbling from prison governors, strict controls on what could and could not happen were imposed from the centre.

To make any of this work, the prison population had to be reduced so that prisoners could be moved from double to single cells and space made available to keep those who needed to be isolated separate from the rest of the population. At first the government attempted to do this by releasing low-risk prisoners early – but the scheme was bureaucratic and slow and fewer prisoners than needed were released. But further upstream in the criminal justice system, with the courts all but halted on top of an already enormous backlog of cases, and crime levels falling, prison admissions fell, and combined with ordinary releases, brought the population down below 80,000 for the first time in many years – sufficient to reduce the spread of infection.

Like the country as a whole, the lockdown in prisons had its own adverse effects. Pressure grew for what amounted to long-term 'solitary confinement' to be relaxed. Many accounts emerged of the damage these conditions were doing to prisoners' mental health. The position was more complicated than that. As might be expected, the number of assaults fell sharply during lockdown but less expectedly the number of self-harm incidents, a crude indicator of distress, fell sharply too. It wasn't a uniform picture, self-harm rose slightly in women's prisons and there were big differences even in prisons of the same type, but overall prisons appear to have been calmer and safer in lockdown than they have been for many years.

Now that the epidemic in prisons appears to be spiking, the prison service and Ministers will need to act as decisively as they did in the first wave. They will know now whether the second lockdown has halted the rise in infection. If not, they need to act quickly. Prisoners don't have the same autonomy as the rest of us to manage their own risks – and so it's the duty of the state to keep them safe. Lessons can be learnt from the first lockdown about the need to vary the regime for women and children in custody and what activities can safely continue.

There are lessons for the longer term too. Until a vaccine or comprehensive testing brings the virus under control, the prison population will need to be kept down. Action will be needed to ensure that reducing the courts backlog does not lead to a surge in admissions to prisons, overwhelming social distancing measures. It's been done before; it can be done again. And when restrictions can be permanently relaxed, it's essential that a return to the squalor and violence that existed before is not seen as acceptable or inevitable. Lockdown in prisons has been a circuit-breaker not just for the spread of the epidemic but for the safety epidemic too. As the prison lockdown is eased, as it must be, this must be carefully controlled and slowed or halted on a prison-by-prison basis if violence and self-harm gets out of control again.

Nick Hardwick, Monday 2 November 2020


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