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Unlocking Cell Door

The Dangers of COVID-19 to the Prison Population

Benjamin Burrows and Maya Grantham discuss the implications of a severe outbreak of COVID-19 within our prisons.

Posted on 07 April 2020

A severe outbreak of COVID-19 within our prisons could be catastrophic, the implications of which would not be confined to prison walls.

On Tuesday, 31 March 2020, the Ministry of Justice published a press release announcing the temporary release of pregnant prisoners who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public. On Saturday, 4 April 2020, the Ministry of Justice then published a press release announcing the temporary release of prisoners within two months of their release date. Both announcements, though very limited, are steps in the right direction to limit the dangers of the virus within our prisons. However, the vulnerabilities of the prison population, the factors of a custodial environment which make it more difficult to stop the spread of a virus, and the repeated alarm bells around the state of healthcare in prisons even before the current pandemic, demand that the Government does more. 
Prisoners in England and Wales are statistically more likely to be vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus than people in the community. The over 50s are the fastest growing age group in our prisons, and prisoners are more likely than members of the general population to suffer from serious underlying health conditions.  
The custodial environment also poses unique difficulties to stopping the rapid spread of COVID-19, examples include: 
  • The requirement for prisoners to be accompanied to a community hospital by an escort, usually comprising of two officers. Prisons frequently have insufficient staff numbers to facilitate prisoners attending important hospital appointments. This will become even more prevalent as prisoners and officers become unwell with the virus. The Government is already reporting that 26% of prison staff are absent or self-isolating.  
  • The majority of prisons in England and Wales are running over capacity, and thousands of prisoners have to share their cell. A report by the National Audit Office in December 2019 recorded that 60% of English and Welsh prisons are “crowded” with the worst institutions being at over 150% capacity. It is hard to envisage how a prisoner can safely isolate in those conditions. 
  • Demand for segregated cells will rapidly outstrip supply. Although prisons will usually have a number of segregated cells, those cells are commonly used to house prisoners who need to be protected for their own or others’ safety. Those risks have not gone with the spread of COVID-19, and so prisons will be forced to risk the health and safety of prisoners in order to accommodate necessary isolation measures. 


The real and immediate threat posed by COVID-19 to our prisons is in the context of repeated concerns about quality of prison healthcare. On 26 February 2020, an article published in the British Medical Journal identified “serious problems in accessing secondary care”. In 2018 the Government’s own Health and Social Care Committee found that the Government was failing in its duty of care towards people detained in England. In our February blog, we discussed the concerning rise in numbers of avoidable deaths.
To contain the threat posed by COVID-19 to the prison population, the Government needs to take urgent steps to reduce its size. Currently, there are over 83,000 prisoners in England and Wales. A serious outbreak within the prison population will place enormous pressure on community NHS hospitals all over the country, at a time when there are already grave concerns about the NHS’s ability to cope. 
The Government’s latest announcements simply do not go far enough, and action has not been taken soon enough. The Government’s 4 April 2020 press release confirmed that 88 prisoners and 15 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.  But those figures are in light of minimal testing nationwide, and an understanding that we are not yet at the “peak” of the virus’s effects. Despite notifying certain prisoners that they are “extremely vulnerable” and subjecting them to shielding measures, Leigh Day’s prison law team are hearing reports that prisons are not managing to effectively protect those in that category, and it is concerning to note that no press releases to date has addressed that group. 


Benjamin Burrows
Human rights Inquests Judicial review Prisons

Benjamin Burrows

Benjamin is head of the prison team