Prison in the Pandemic

Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy has warned recently that a “public health emergency is unfolding before our eyes” in UK prisons as infection rates within them continue to rise. Why do we seem so happy to leave prisoners behind in the fight against coronavirus? Being in prison is hard at the best of times, especially […]

Emily O'Dowd
30th March 2021
Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy has warned recently that a “public health emergency is unfolding before our eyes” in UK prisons as infection rates within them continue to rise. Why do we seem so happy to leave prisoners behind in the fight against coronavirus?

Being in prison is hard at the best of times, especially considering the fact that the prison population is made up of many of the most vulnerable members of society, but the pandemic has made it unbearable. In February, the prison watchdog said that prisoners in England’s jails have been locked in their cells for over 90% of the day in order to keep them safe from the virus, restricting their access to education classes, intervention work, gyms and family visits. Whilst it’s arguably true that time spent in prison should be a punishment, it should not be inhumane, and the conditions faced by prisoners during the pandemic are set to have a huge impact on their future reintegration into society. 

And it’s not just prisoners that are affected. Prison officers are at massive risk of infection as a result of conditions within prisons, with many stating that they feel like ‘lambs to the slaughter’ as a result of inaction relating to rising cases.

The UK prison system is supposed to be aimed towards reintegration rather than constant punishment, but the pandemic means that even a short sentence for a minor crime could become a death sentence for those that are most vulnerable. And it’s not just prisoners that are affected. Prison officers are at massive risk of infection as a result of conditions within prisons, with many stating that they feel like ‘lambs to the slaughter’ as a result of inaction relating to rising cases. Whilst some people may argue that the fate of prisoners themselves may be justified in the face of their crimes, they aren’t the only ones who are suffering as a result of incompetence. 

As it has for the rest of us, the rollout of the country-wide vaccination scheme has provided hope for those in prison, but the UK government has rejected the idea that local vaccination teams should be given flexibility to vaccinate the entire population of a prison in one go rather than separating them by age. Our moral objection to the actions of prisoners is once again being used as a justification to leave them behind in a time when we should be protecting the most vulnerable, no matter who they are. 

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