Irish Penal Reform Trust

Crest: Prisons and Covid-19 – what went right?

18th November 2020

In Prisons and Covid-19 – what went right? Professor Nick Hardwick examines how successful attempts to manage Covid-19 infections in prisons during the first lockdown could serve as lessons to help inform some of the decision-making needed in the event of future lockdowns.

The report finds that, in general, unlike England and Wales as a whole, a number of indicators suggested prisons performed better than expected in the first wave of the pandemic. Therefore, it is vital that lessons are learnt from what went right in the first wave in order to ensure the second wave is managed effectively and that when prisons do eventually emerge at the end of this pandemic, they do so safely.

In October 2019, prior to the pandemic, the House of Commons Justice Committee described the prison system as being in the midst of an ‘enduring crisis of safety and decency’. For example, 22% of the prison population were held in overcrowded conditions. In local prisons, the overcrowding rate was 47%, with 32% of men reporting just 2 hours a day or less out of their cells. Following the rise of Covid-19 in England and Wales, in April 2020 it was estimated that 77,800 prisoners could become infected, 4,500 hospitalised and 2,700 die if no action was taken. However, with the implementation of strict regimes, including shielding those most vulnerable, numbers could be reduced to 2,800, 200 and 100 respectively.

After the first wave of the pandemic, outcomes were far better than expected. With the introduction of routine releases, plus a sharp reduction in admissions due to the suspension of jury trials, a fall in the prison population was experienced. With this in mind, Prof. Hardwick has outlined four lessons to learn, based on the successes of the first lockdown that can be considered during the current second lockdown in England and Wales.

1. Tighten the lockdown now if the epidemic is continuing to spread

Prof. Hardwick raises the question of whether the relaxation of restrictions went too far over the summer and have not been tightened sufficiently in the current lockdown. He suggests that prison managers already have access to data that indicates whether this second lockdown is working; if the data shows the number of prisoners testing positive has continued to rise throughout the last few weeks, then action should be taken to mirror the measures taken in the first lockdown as it was deemed a success in controlling the virus.

2. Quality of time in and out of cell is more important than quantity

During the first lockdown, the close confinement of prisoners for long periods of time led to criticism and concerns from the House of Commons Justice Committee, pressure groups and the media. However, data from the first lockdown suggests that overall the harm caused may have been less than anticipated. A number of resources, including access to phones and video conferencing, reduced the feeling of isolation for many. In addition, evidence indicates that those prisons coped best when time saved by staff in supervising groups of prisoners was used to give prisoners individual attention and support to the most vulnerable. Prof. Hardwick suggests that in the long term, more emphasis needs to be placed on the quality of the time prisoners spend in and out of their cells as well as the quantity. He also expresses that the use of mobile phones and video conferencing services should be continued after the pandemic. He recommends that further research, including obtaining the views of prisoners themselves, is needed to identify in detail what measures were effective in those prisons that both prevented infection and reduced self-harm rates.

3. Maintain population reductions

The prison population in England and Wales has reduced by 6% since the pandemic began; this shows the prison population can be reduced. Managing the epidemic in prisons will continue to be a challenge unless or until a vaccine and comprehensive, rapid and reliable testing are available. Prof. Hardwick indicates that if the pandemic continues, it is vital that future growth in the population is controlled.

In order to manage the virus, the population must be kept low so that cohorting and social distancing can be maintained. Court backlog has increased significantly. While Prof. Hardwick recognises the necessity in the interest of justice that this backlog is reduced quickly, new so-called ‘Nightingale courts’ are being opened and enhanced technology introduced. Ironically, the quicker the backlog is reduced, the greater the problem for prisons. A mechanism will need to be found to limit the growth in the prison population. Without the reduction in the prison population during the first lockdown, the compartmentalisation strategy which kept prisoners safe would not have worked.

4. A centrally imposed 'circuit-breaker'

Prof. Hardwick writes that prison lockdowns have also acted as 'circuit breakers' for a number of prison-related issues, including assaults and self-harm. In addition, these breaks provide the opportunity to put in place measures to sustain the improvements that have occurred. There is a strong case for the framework of central control employed to manage COVID crisis to remain in place. Individual prisons' ability to continue to reduce violence and self-harm should be explicit factors in decisions about how to ease the second lockdown's restrictions.

Read Prisons and Covid-19: what went right? on the Crest website here.

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