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 provides updates on the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in prisons each week as well as producing a monthly summary. 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 necessarily represent the true scale of infection within the prison system. As such, these numbers should be treated with caution.

 

 

Covid-19 prisons project—CAPPTIVE

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.

In response, we have established an urgent new project—CAPPTIVE (The Covid Action Prison Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience) to hear from people in prison, and the people who care about them, about their own experience of the pandemic, and to ensure that prisoners’ voices are heard in the discussions amongst wider society about what our lives will look like after the pandemic.

Contributions to the project from prisoners, family members and the organisations that support them are informing a series of rapid review reports that will be vital in ensuring we have the evidence to continue our work effectively both now and in the future.

These reports will bring the direct experiences, insights and ideas for change to the attention of those who most need to hear them, in Parliament, in the Ministry of Justice and the prison service.

 

Reports

Briefing 1—Families and communications

Briefing 2—Regimes, reactions to the pandemic, and progression

 

Get involved

We’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the CAPPTIVE project so far. As part of our continuing work on the CAPPTIVE project, we would like to invite people with lived experience of imprisonment to continue submitting their responses on the following topics:

  • Black, Minority Ethnic and Muslim experience of prison during the Covid ‘double lockdown’;

  • Women in prison; and

  • Innovative practices witnessed in the prison estate.

Prisoners, family members and organisations that support them can contribute their experiences and thoughts using the contact details below.

 Post
 Prisoner Policy Network c/o
 Prison Reform Trust FREEPOST ND 6125
 London EC1B 1PN
 Email ppn@prisonreformtrust.org.uk

 

Our action

The Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform have received a brief response to our letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, requesting details of the ministry’s plans ahead of an expected increase in people being sent to prison as courts start to resume normal business.

For all the billions that have been promised for new prisons, it is clear that there is no plan for a prison estate free of overcrowding, despite the misery people have suffered during  the pandemic in prisons holding too many people too close together.

Click here to read his response.

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We were pleased to receive a response from the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland this week to our joint letter with the Howard League of 13 October.

His response is full and quite detailed. It shows that the prison service has made a thorough and genuine attempt to quickly learn the lessons from its initial response to the pandemic in the spring. It has done so not just through its own research but by taking on board what we in our CAPPTIVE reports(1)(2), and many other organisations, have been telling it. No-one is pretending that everything is as we would want it, and the adjusted approach the prison service wants to take now is dependent on staffing and on how the virus progresses in individual prisons and in the community. But we can point to some significant improvements at least in what the prison service is trying to deliver.

Click 'read more' for the full story.

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The Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform have written to the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland today in the light of the rapidly developing situation in prisons in relation to outbreaks of Covid-19.

The letter calls for greater transparency, to ensure that prisoners and their families are able to understand the basis on which decisions are being taken, including the publication of evidence and advice received by ministers on the risks of transmission in prisons; and the different measures taken to contain the spread of Covid-19.

It also highlights a number of policy decisions which the charities believe could and should be taken now to reassure prisoners and their families about the difficult months ahead.

Click 'read more' to see a copy of our letter and to read the full story

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Lockdown conditions in prisons have effectively ended opportunities for prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities and progress in their sentences.

For the nearly 11,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (9,000 unreleased; 2,000 recalled), this could lead to them spending significantly longer in prison than they might have otherwise. This is because they may be unable to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they have taken part in activities to reduce their risk.

A further 5,815 people serving extended determinate sentences, whose release is dependent on the Parole Board up until the end of their custodial term, could also find themselves spending longer in prison because of a lack of access to rehabilitation.

The uncertainty is leading to increasing despair and hopelessness and putting a significant strain on the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners, already suffering as a result of lockdown conditions, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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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 vital report shows that the measures prisons have taken to contain Covid-19 are not sustainable. As we face the prospect of a rise in infections during the autumn, prisons have been left facing the same fundamental problem as when the pandemic first took hold. There are too many prisoners for the space available. The government has wilfully set its face against the safe reduction in prison numbers which would allow the more flexible and humane response the Chief Inspector is calling for. As numbers going through the court system increase, it will be prisoners and their families who pay the price of that failure to plan ahead.”

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Following the publication of the first report of our new CAPPTIVE project, established in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the prisons minister Lucy Frazer has written to the Prison Reform Trust to welcome its findings.

In her response she endorses the value of listening to prisoners and their families, and their involvement in how prisons organise their response to the pandemic. This is welcome, as we know the best prisons already do this because they have seen the value it brings.

As the CAPPTIVE project continues at pace, we will continue to tell her directly what prisoners and their families are telling us.

Click here to read the letter.

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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.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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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.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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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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