Coronavirus ‘would spread like wildfire’ if outbreak hit UK prisons, experts warn

Analysis: Overcrowding, poor hygiene and frequent movement create a ‘perfect storm’ of disease transmission vectors

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 10 March 2020 19:18 GMT
Self-isolation will be next to impossible in over-crowded prisons, where thousands of inmates exist in cells accommodating more people than they are designed to hold
Self-isolation will be next to impossible in over-crowded prisons, where thousands of inmates exist in cells accommodating more people than they are designed to hold

As coronavirus takes hold across the UK, it is looking increasingly likely that many of us will be forced into some degree of self-isolation. With England’s deputy chief medical officer admitting the UK will see “many thousands of people” contract the disease, trying to avoid crowded spaces and have limited contact with other people sounds like a good idea.

This isn't an option in prisons, where thousands of inmates exist in cells accommodating more people than they are designed to hold. For prisoners and staff alike, the outbreak poses a bigger threat than to those in the community. Some jails suffer from conditions that could create a “perfect storm” for spreading disease - infamously poor hygiene, constant movement of prisoners in and out and notoriously cramped conditions.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, a leading prisons charity, has written to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) demanding a statement on precautions being taken to protect people in prison, and thereby the wider population, from coronavirus – warning that “unhygienic” prisons where even soap is frequently impossible to obtain – could be a “centre for spreading the virus into the community”.

“I am surprised that there appears to have been no statement from the MoJ as to the precautions being taken,” states the letter, signed by chief executive Frances Crook. Ms Crook wrote that infectious diseases “flourish” in conditions of overcrowding, poor ventilation, filth and in populations with compromised health. She added: “Should anyone enter a prison already infected with coronavirus it would spread and multiply like wildfire inside the establishment and in the community.”

Poor hygiene in jails, where many inmates are unable to shower once a day or wash their hands with soap, is a considerable concern for attempts to prevent spread of the disease, but prisons face a further problem in providing adequate treatment if people do show symptoms.

A recent report by the Nuffield Trust think tank showed prisoners in Britain frequently had hospital appointments cancelled and received less healthcare than the general public, with as many as four in 10 hospital appointments made for a prisoner cancelled or missed in 2017-18 – largely due to a lack of prison staff available to transport and guard prisoners while at hospital. If people in jail begin to show symptoms, there are questions about how they will access the necessary healthcare.

“Healthcare in prisons is often far worse than it is in the community, and prisoners can struggle to attend hospital appointments due to staffing shortages," said Aidan Shilson-Thomas, criminal justice researcher at the Reform think tank, describing the threat of coronavirus in prisons as a "perfect storm". He added: "With a growing number of older prisoners and many having underlying health conditions, it is vital that resources are made available so prisons can offer the same quality of care that members of the public would receive.”

Aside from low hygiene and below-par health facilities, campaigners warn that already low staffing levels in jails – with the total cumulative length of service among prison officers having plummeted by a quarter since 2010 – could cause further problems.

A secret Ministry of Justice blueprint is reported to lay out plans for thousands of low-risk prisoners to be released early if the coronavirus outbreak creates a shortage of staff in jails. According to the Sunday Times, ministers don't support the plans, but concerns are growing that a dwindling prison workforce would be unable to provide basic necessities, such as food and security, for the UK’s 84,000 prisoners.

Another measure is to reduce movement in and out of jails by banning family visits, but the consequences of such a move have proven devastating elsewhere. In Italy, at least six prisoners died on Sunday, reportedly after overdosing on methadone during a protest against a ban on family visits, aimed at restricting the spread of coronavirus. Riots are said to have broken out in 27 Italian prisons after all visits were suspended and inmates were told they could only speak to visitors on the phone or via Skype.

“Ministers and governors are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Mr Shilson-Thomas on the UK prison response. “With a lot of people coming and going from some prisons it seems very likely that the virus will enter prisons unless very strict measures are adopted for all visitors and new arrivals. But limiting prisoners' social time and family visits would be very disruptive.”

Regardless of whether visits are banned, self-isolating prisoners will likely be near-impossible in most overcrowded establishments, with many inmates living two-to-a-cell already.

A prison service spokesperson said: “We have robust contingency plans in place based on the latest advice from Public Health England. Basic hygiene is a key part of tackling coronavirus. Handwashing facilities are available in all prisons and we have worked closely with suppliers to ensure adequate supply of soap and cleaning materials.

“We have the ability to deploy staff flexibly and will prioritise the safety of officers, prisoners and visitors while ensuring minimal possible disruption to normal regimes.”

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