A recent report by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons has highlighted the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic upon prisoners. The study included the views of men, women and children living in standard residential units, who have typically spent more than 22 hours a day in their cells since March last year, and who have been unable to work or have access to education.
Disturbing effects of COVID-19 restrictions upon prisoners
Commenting on the restrictions, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief inspector of Prisons said: “The most disturbing effect of the restrictions was the decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being... They frequently compared themselves to caged animals. As one prisoner said: ‘It’s being imprisoned while you’re in prison’.”
The key findings in the report included:
- Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 were initially successful “but come at a heavy cost”, with prisoners spending over 90% of the day in their cells – with bullying and violence not ending, but taking on different forms.
- Prisoners are very anxious about being released into a world dominated by COVID-19 restrictions, which has only been amplified by the fact that the help they’d typically get to address their offending behaviour had been “largely lost”. In addition, there have been no opportunities to access education or training.
- Prisoners claimed they were chronically bored and their mental and physical health had worsened – with the report stating that many turned to self-harm or drugs. “They felt drained and depleted. Their despondency, resentment and lack of hope for the future were especially notable,” it said.
- The limited contact with friends and family was a contributing factor in this, although in-cell phones and video had been positively received, providing a “crucial lifeline”.
- Those prisoners on remand have been suffering from additional anxieties as they waited for up to a year for their trials.
- The long-term consequences of such prolonged and severe restrictions in prisons could be profound for prisoners and the communities to which they ultimately return.
Vaccinating prisoners as a way out of restrictions?
During the past few months, we have seen several calls for the prioritisation of vaccines for all prisoners, as well as prison staff, to ensure that the restrictions currently in place can be lifted as soon as possible. In fact, Clinks, a charity that supports the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system, published an open letter to the Joint Council of Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) requesting just that, back in January.
This argument was later backed by researchers from University College London (UCL), who said that prisoners have an elevated risk of dying of COVID-19 and should be prioritised, along with staff.
According to a BBC report, “the UCL researchers argued that earlier vaccination would not only protect prisoners' health but would restore their access to education, rehabilitation programmes and family visits. This may reduce their chances of reoffending and prevent prison from being a "lost opportunity", quoting Dr Isobel Braithwaite, who led the study.
She added that high mortality rates were the most significant point: "There has to be an adequate response to that given the government's legal duty of care."
Is it time for the JCVI to change its approach?
Despite the latest UCL study and renewed calls for a mass vaccination programme throughout the UK’s prisons, the JCVI is currently unmoved and told the BBC that its current vaccination priority list would prevent 99% of COVID-19 deaths.
"As the single greatest risk of death from COVID-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age," Prof Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI's COVID-19 chairman said.
Do you think this is the correct approach, or should the UK prison estate receive vaccinations as a priority? Please comment below…
Jessica Kimbell, GovNet