Prison visits have been cancelled across England and Wales as jails are placed on lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced prisons would be closed to visitors on Tuesday in order to ensure the “safe and secure functioning of our prisons, while enforcing social distancing”.
No social visits, education or workshops will take place across the prison estate in order to keep staff, inmates and their families must ”as safe as possible”, according to the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).
Inmates will be locked up most of the time, allowed out only to access to showers, phones – where they do not have one in their cells – and exercise, but with application of social distancing principles, the union said.
Only prisoners who are essential workers – such as those working in the kitchen, laundry, or as cleaners – will be let out of their cells for longer periods to attend work.
In Italy, protests erupted in jails when the government took similar measures there two weeks ago, leading to the deaths of 12 inmates.
Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the POA, said he believed prisoners would respect the decision. He told The Independent he received confirmation of the new measures on Monday night after being in talks with the government over recent days about bringing in such measures.
“More and more staff are self-isolating, more and more prisoners are showing symptoms of Covid-19, and in order to protect staff, prisoners and the general public, it is now necessary to self-isolate our prisoners to stop the spread,” he said.
Asked whether he was concerned the move could prompt a negative reaction from prisoners, such as that seen in Italy, Mr Fairhurst said: “I’m always worried about an overreaction, but I think we’ve done things sensibly.
“We’ve continued to work normally for as long as we possibly can and I think families of prisoners will be relieved that they’re not at risks and prisoners will be relieved that their loved ones will be safe at home instead of travelling all over the country into packed visit halls and putting themselves at risk.
“In my local prison, HMP Liverpool, prisoners have been asking why they haven’t been locked down yet, so we’re hoping there will be a sensible reaction from prisoners. They must realise that this is for their safety and their loved ones.
“I think the timing is just about right. As the virus was spreading rapidly, they did the right thing at the right time.”
Thirteen prisoners and 12 prison staff in England and Wales have so far tested positive for coronavirus, and around 3,500 of a total of just over 27,000 prison staff are currently self-isolating.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA, said the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Monday night was a “game changer” which meant prison regimes could no longer be kept as normal.
“The POA will continue to work with government and employer to keep our members and prisoners as safe as possible. These restrictions will bring their own challenges operationally but the director general Phil Copple has made the correct decision,” he said.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is an extremely difficult and worrying time for everyone and, while a lockdown in prisons may have been inevitable with wider community restrictions now in place, it is critically important that prisoners and their families are able to keep in touch.
“Some prisons are giving prisoners more phone credit if they cannot meet people face to face. And we could do more, such as allowing the use of technology like Skype to enable 'virtual visits'."
She said it was also "vital" that prisoners were treated with compassion and engaged in purposeful activity while in their cells, adding: “Meanwhile, to protect the public, the government must start taking steps to reduce the number of people behind bars to ensure that prisons do not become breeding grounds for COVID-19.”
The MoJ said secure phone handsets would be given to prisoners at 55 jails, enabling the approved use of 900 locked SIM card handsets so that risk-assessed prisoners can speak to a small number of pre-authorised contacts.
It said strict measures would ensure the phones are not misused, with calls being time-limited and monitored closely, as well as measures to prevent non-secure SIM cards being used and no internet access.
Prisons and probation minister Lucy Frazer QC MP said: “These are uniquely challenging times and the decision to end prison visits has not been taken lightly. We know these are important to many prisoners and that they will be concerned for the wellbeing of their family members.
“It is therefore right and proportionate that we provide other, controlled ways for them to stay in touch so that they can maintain the close bonds that will ultimately reduce their chances of reoffending when they are released.
“I also want to pay tribute to the thousands of staff working tirelessly to keep our prisons safe.”
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