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 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.

Click 'read more' for the full story

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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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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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