Pandemic And Incarceration: Despair As U.K. Prisons Are Stuck In Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has had stark effects on the United Kingdom’s prison system, with repercussions for inmates in the U.K. and across the world.

The B.B.C. has reported that “two inmates and five staff” tested positive for coronavirus in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison. A further 250 Barlinnie inmates are now in lockdown. The recent outbreak has renewed calls to change prison procedures to allow for safe and effective distancing measures. This will minimize the dangerous threat prison outbreaks can pose.

Mitigating prisoner exposure and providing transparent support to family members continue to be key concerns of civil society organizations like the Prison Reform Trust.

Prisons and Transmission

Detainees have limited capacity to control their own health under normal penitentiary conditions, and this has only worsened as prisons initiate their own lockdowns. New restrictions on prison life at the height of the pandemic mean most prisoners spend at least 23 hours each day locked in their cells. According to Dr. Miranda Davies, writing for the Nuffield Trust, this becomes a form of solitary confinement. As visitations become excluded from a prisoner’s schedule, detainees have little meaningful contact with other people.

As in care homes and cruise ships, prisons are hotbeds for the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2. These institutions all feature densely populated and tightly packed living conditions, which are impossible to avoid and hard to compensate for. Adapting to protect against the pandemic has been especially challenging for the penal system. The Howard League for Penal Reform found that England and Wales struggle with overcrowding, with prisons holding 3,538 people over the 75,582 carrying capacity. Scotland’s prisons have also reportedly been on the brink of overcrowding for several years now, with numbers rising over 8000. Scott Macnab reports for The Scotsman that national services are under immense pressure, creating a triple threat “to operational safety, effectiveness and financial sustainability.”

Historically, infections have spread rapidly within prisons. In the 1990s, the tuberculosis outbreak was “up to 100 times higher” in prisons “than that of the civilian population,” according to the World Health Organization. Similarly, we know and expect that prisons will see many more COVID infections and deaths than the general population. Further action must be taken to mitigate further tragedy. The government and the House of Commons Justice Committee must be pressured to safeguard all human life in this unprecedented time.

The legacy of COVID-19

The pandemic’s impact on our prison system is multifaceted, but the outlook for prison life continues to be bleak. Notably, COVID-19 presents a setback for restorative justice, as further exposure to harsh prison conditions will only limit the success of reintegration programs. The Prison Reform Trust says that “lockdown conditions in prison have effectively ended opportunities for prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities and progress in their sentences.”

COVID-19 further disenfranchises prisoners, while also threatening their personal health. We must do more to directly combat the “increasing despair and hopelessness” prisoners and their families are facing. The strain of the pandemic cannot be ignored, and current measures have failed to address gaping holes. More must be done to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those in detention.