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

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

“This report highlights the government s failure to support the often heroic efforts of staff and prisoners to stay safe during the pandemic. An effective early release plan would have freed up capacity in the estate to maintain social distancing while ensuring the basics of a humane and decent regime. But only a handful of prisoners have been released under the restrictive measures the government has introduced.

“This has left prisons such as Coldingley resorting to the routine use of buckets in cells, and consigning prisoners to sit in accommodation for 23 hours a day which ought to have been decommissioned long ago. This approach is simply not sustainable. The worrying levels of violence observed in two of the three prisons is a troubling indicator of the toll the situation is taking on the wellbeing of prisoners and staff. Ministers must now act decisively to give prisons the headroom they need.”

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

“This important report shows why there is absolutely no room for complacency about the crisis in our prisons. People are sharing cells with someone who might or might not be carrying the virus. They are spending weeks on end in an overcrowded cell for 23 and a half hours a day. Some sick prisoners have gone a fortnight without a shower. Prison managers, staff and prisoners have worked together to make the best of an impossible situation. They all deserve praise for doing so.

“By contrast, ministers have not done all they could to help. These three prisons are still overcrowded, but just one person has been released early to make space. To make matters worse, a much larger number of people are still being recalled to serve just a few days inside, despite the obvious risks. The current situation is obviously not sustainable, and will stop making sense as restrictions in the community start to ease and receptions into prison increase. It’s time for ministers to step up and end the overcrowding which turns a difficult situation into a dangerous one.”

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The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (6 May) published more than a dozen key documents that shed further light on the government’s response to coronavirus in prisons in England and Wales.

Lawyers for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice last month, threatening legal action over the government’s failure to release more people from prison during the pandemic. Now the charities have been granted permission by the government to publish its reply, including enclosures that provide more information about developments in the situation behind bars and the advice given to ministers.

At the same time, the charities have written another letter to the Secretary of State, warning that the current conditions that are said to have been containing the virus so far are unsustainable in the medium to longer term.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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As part of the Prison Reform Trust's continuing efforts to scrutinise the government's response to managing Covid-19 in our prisons, our director Peter Dawson has submitted his latest evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee today.

PRT continues to share evidence with the committee, drawn from our contact with people in prison and those working to support them during this exceptionally difficult time, in addition to our policy and advocacy work to improve public transparency in the government's advice and decision making.

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"I understand the disappointment at our decision not to take the government to court. Fundamentally, our case was that we believed the Lord Chancellor was ignoring advice that around 15,000 prisoners needed to be released in the interests of safety. What we have discovered through the action is that the situation is fluid and that the Government’s current position is informed by the public health advice that was published last Friday. Our lawyers have therefore advised that the most effective way forward at this time is to continue to apply pressure.

"We are not giving up. Managing the pandemic in prisons puts enormous strain on those who live and work in our prisons, and those who care for them. The need for there to be many fewer people in prison will not change and we will continue to make that case. The information we have gained this week because of the threat of legal action will be crucial in doing that. But we have to do it in the way we think is most likely to get the right result."

Peter Dawson
Director

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On Tuesday 28 April 2020 the government’s lawyers responded to our letter before claim threatening judicial review proceedings. The challenge centred on the Secretary of State for Justice’s failure to release people from prison despite the government’s announcement of 4 April 2020 that this was required in response to Covid-19.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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The Prison Service has now published guidance about prison releases in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Full details are included in documents called ‘End of Custody Temporary Release’ and ‘Covid-19: Use of Compassionate ROTL’ which can be found by clicking here.

We have summarised some of the key points of these policies, which you can read by clicking here.

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As the coordinator of Lancashire Women’s Enhanced Through The Gate (ETTG) services for women within HMP/YOI Styal, Therese Sanders knows that release from prison can be a very stressful time, both for those being released and their families. In normal times, Therese and her probation colleagues, who are all based within the prison, meet with women 12 weeks prior to their release to prepare them for settling back into the community and to address any specific needs they may have. But these are not normal times.

PRT associate Sarah Beresford examines the lack of information and communication about early release, and the impact it is having on people leaving prison, their families, and the organisations supporting them.

Click 'read more' to read her blog

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The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (Friday 17 April) sent a formal letter before claim to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, over the government’s failure to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic in prisons.

The letter, from lawyers acting for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust, gives details of a proposed application for judicial review in relation to the Secretary of State’s response “to the obvious need…to substantially reduce the prison population to save lives and avoid a public health catastrophe both within prisons and beyond”.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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Prison Reform Trust director Peter Dawson has submitted evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee today, to assist in its role in scrutinising the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

PRT will continue to regularly share evidence with the committee, drawn from our contact with people in prison and those working to support them during this exceptionally difficult time.

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