Tackling the spread of coronavirus in prison

Like all organisations and individuals the Prison Reform Trust has been closely monitoring the developments and government advice following the Covid-19 outbreak. The safety of those who live and work in our prisons and that of PRT staff is our priority.

Whilst the focus for government and our prisons will rightly be on how best to respond to Covid-19, the Prison Reform Trust continues to have an important role to monitor as best we can how people in prison and their families are being looked after, and to be as constructive and imaginative as possible in suggesting ideas for mitigating their suffering.

Everything good about government action in tackling this emergency has been characterised by being early and decisive. On prisons, by contrast, it is a story of too little, too late. The scientific and operational advice couldn’t be clearer – if ministers are serious about following it, they must go much further, and do it now.

In this section, you can find out how we are responding to the pandemic, and what we're doing to help ensure that the lives of prisoners, staff and our community are protected during this period of unprecedented challenge.


Getting help

If you know of someone in prison in need of advice and information then click here for details on how they can get in contact with us.

The Ministry of Justice has also posted a Q&A for friends and family of people in prison which you can read by clicking here.

If you are concerned about a person in prison and would like support yourself, click here for details on how to contact the Prisoners' Families Helpline.


Confirmed cases

The Ministry of Justice is providing updates on the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in prisons each weekday. However, Public Health England has reported that access to testing for prisoners across the estate has been limited and variable. Therefore, the number of confirmed cases reported does not represent the true scale of infection within the prison system. As such, these numbers should be treated with caution.

 

 

Supporting scrutiny of the government's response

As part of the Prison Reform Trust's continuing efforts to scrutinise the government's response to managing Covid-19 in our prisons we are sharing evidence with the House of Commons Justice Committee on a regular basis, drawn from our contact with people in prison and those working to support them during this exceptionally difficult time.

You can read all of our submissions below.

 May April
 21 May
 30 April
 14 May
 23 April
  16 April
  9 April
  2 April


Our action

The gradual resumption of face-to-face visits in some prisons earlier this month will have come as an immense relief for those able to see their loved ones. But as prisons begin their recovery and restrictions are eased at different speeds, it will take time before visits return to anywhere near the levels seen before the pandemic.

Currently video calls are available in 30 of the 120 prisons in England and Wales, and access is limited to one call of up to 30 minutes per month per person. Nevertheless, for those few who have had access, it will have been the first time they have seen the faces of their loved ones in three months or more.

Last month Prison Reform Trust director, Peter Dawson, wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice for his assurance that video calls will be a permanent addition to the ways in which family ties can be maintained, not just during the Covid-19 pandemic but thereafter, and that they will not be used as a substitute or alternative to either phone calls or face to face visits.

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The rollout of secure video calls in prisons should be speeded up to ease the distress of families and their loved ones unable to see each other since the cancellation of social visits, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust suggests.

Based on 278 contributions from families and prisoners in England and Wales, the briefing reveals a mounting sense of anger, frustration and despair over more than 3 months of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in prisons.

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Last month the Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, to highlight our shared concerns that people in prison continue to be held in conditions which are inhumane and untenable.

Most people in prison are either in prolonged solitary confinement or in overcrowded conditions. Despite the additional resources that have been given to prisons to cope with the crisis, each and every report from HM Inspectorate of Prisons has painted a clear, bleak picture: prisons are devoid of purposeful activity and opportunities for people to make amends.

We have now received a response to our letter.

Click 'read more' to see a copy of his letter and a comment from our director, Peter Dawson.

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Commenting on the findings of today’s report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This report shows just how self-defeating the government’s obstinate refusal to contemplate early release for some prisoners has become. Open prisons hold many people who had been working in the community before the pandemic struck—contributing to the economy and re-establishing the links that lead to a crime free life. But rather than release these people, the government has kept them cooped up doing nothing. Incredibly, ministers are paying for new temporary accommodation as well, all for people who could quite safely not be there at all.”

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The Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform have written to Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, following his response on 1 June.

The letter warns that whilst things have moved on considerably in the community since we last wrote, for the 80,000 men, women and children in prison, life has not changed significantly since the lockdown regime was introduced on 24 March 2020, some 80 days ago.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The combined efforts of the people who live and work in our prisons have so far contained outbreaks of Covid 19. But the price has been 3 months of unregulated solitary confinement for two thirds of prisoners. That can’t continue, especially as restrictions outside prisons are eased. Ministers must set a new and more humane minimum standard below which the treatment of a fellow human being cannot fall.”

Click here to read a copy of the letter

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The Prison Reform Trust has co-signed a letter to CEO of HM Prison and Probation Service, Dr Jo Farrar today, calling for practical and visible action to tackle the discrimination that many people from minority communities are experiencing and have experienced for many years.

The letter, sent as part of PRT's membership of the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) Special Interest Group on Covid-19, includes a briefing prepared by a small group of BAME led organisations at the request of the group. It makes a series of practical suggestions for how the recovery process in prisons and probation can meet its obligations to people from minority communities who are so disproportionately disadvantaged in our current criminal justice system.

The task of eradicating discrimination based on race and ethnicity belongs to all of us. It requires leadership from those who hold power and influence now, not just those from minority communities who have for so long struggled to fill those positions or command that influence. They, and the organisations that know them best, are looking for evidence that they have been heard.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the lives of prisoners, their families and those that work in prison. Widescale lockdown with people held in cells for up to 23 and a half hours a day, as well as the suspension of family visits since March have placed an immense strain on prisoners and their loved ones during this unprecedented time.

PRT has steadfastly continued its advocacy and influencing work throughout this period on behalf of those in prison. However, the true depth of what people in prison are currently experiencing is invisible behind the walls.

As we have found through our Prisoner Policy Network, learning lessons both now and for the future depends on listening to prisoners and sharing their experience and insight.

In response to this challenge, we have established an urgent new project—CAPPTIVE (The Covid Action Prison Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience). We want to hear from people in prison, and the people who care about them, about their own experience of the pandemic so far.

Click 'read more' to find out how you can get involved

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Commenting on the findings of today’s report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons on women’s prisons during the Covid-19 period, Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manager for reducing women's imprisonment at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This distressing report bears witness to a ‘failure of national planning’ by the government in its response to the threat of the pandemic in prisons, as well as the impact of cumulative failures to deliver on its Female Offender Strategy. Hardly any women have been released from these prisons under the government’s temporary release scheme, despite the fact that most women are imprisoned or remanded for minor non-violent offences. The suspension of family visits and delays in rolling out virtual visits are no doubt contributing to the increased levels of self- harm among the women in the prisons inspected.”

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Last month the Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, warning that the current conditions that are said to have been containing the virus so far are unsustainable in the medium to longer term.

We have now received a response to our letter, which you can read by clicking here.

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Commenting on the publication of guidance outlining how the government plans to ease coronavirus-related restrictions in prisons, Peter Dawson, Director of Prison Reform Trust said:

“The pandemic continues to make massive demands on the endurance of the people who live and work in prison. What this roadmap misses out is the most important way in which politicians could actually reduce those demands. Above all, the system needs to be caring for fewer people. But maintaining prison capacity is put on the same level as preserving life. What that means in practice is that ministers are putting a desire to continue locking people up on a par with saving life in prison. That can’t be right.”

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