Head of Prison Governors Association says crowding and staff shortages mean Covid-19 could overwhelm the system.
Prisoners should be released in order to prevent UK jails being overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the Prison Governors Association has told the Guardian.
Andrea Albutt said prisons were facing “unprecedented risk” and the release of some prisoners would help prevent disorder and slow the spread of the virus.
On Tuesday the Ministry of Justice announced that all visits to prisons would be suspended and inmates would be confined to their cells in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Albutt warned that a combination of prison overcrowding, prisoner lockdown, and staff shortages as a result of prison workers needing to isolate themselves meant that the system was facing unprecedented pressure.
“Overcrowding, poor regime, reduced contact with family because we’re not having visits anymore – these are all things that can introduce instability,” she said. “If we can take one of them away, if we can reduce the level of overcrowding in our prisons, it will help towards the coming months.”
Albutt said jails were already severely overcrowded, with prisoners sharing cells designed for a single person.
“We’ve lots of prisoners, two people in a cell built for one,” she said, adding that around 80% of prisoners in Swansea were currently doubled up.“We have that all across the country.”
She added: “To reduce our population is always a good thing: it helps to stabilise prisons, it helps to calm prisons, it means that staff has got the greatest staff to prisoner ratio. If we have fewer prisoners doubled [up in cells], it will be easier to isolate those who’ve been confirmed as having the virus or have the symptoms, so we can delay the spread.”
Prisoners are particularly at risk because they are typically held in confined or overcrowded conditions, where the coronavirus can easily spread. The World Health Organization has warned prisons to expect “huge mortality rates” unless they act to prevent the disease from infiltrating jails.
The Guardian has been told prisons in the UK have begun preparing for a possible rise in deaths. Two prisons in Merseyside, HMP Liverpool, and HMP Altcourse, have been told there is a designated area in the region for storing additional bodies, according to one prison source. A separate source said staff at HMP Northumberland, which is run by the company Sodexo, have been told bodies could be removed to nearby army bases.
A prison service spokesperson said “robust contingency plans” had been put in place in consultation with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care. “These use available evidence and prioritise the safety of staff, prisoners and visitors while making sure normal regimes experience the minimum possible disruption.”
Some countries have already begun releasing prisoners. Iran said it would pardon 10,000 inmates “in light of the sensitive situation in the country”, while the chief justice of the US state of New Jersey signed an order releasing 1,000 people from county jails.
Thirteen cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in UK prisons so far, with the first patient-reported at Strangeways in Manchester last Wednesday. The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that he was considering whether to release prisoners so as to reduce pressure.
The former justice secretary David Gauke last week called on the government to suspend short sentences to avoid the virus spreading. “There is a strong case for releasing some of those coming towards the end of their sentence a few months earlier,” he said.
There is currently no additional guidance on handling excess deaths in custody as a result of the pandemic. However, the prison system has been placed in “command mode”, whereby the response to a major incident can be coordinated nationally.
“As things stand now what has been put in place is right, and the best we can do at the moment,” said Albutt. “However, even with things like that in place, the risk we are managing is massive.”
On Tuesday the Ministry of Justice announced that all prisons in England and Wales would be closed to visitors. Family members would be encouraged to use the prison voicemail service, or to email or write.
In a circular distributed to prison staff on Tuesday, the general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, Steve Gillan, said he had volunteered to return to frontline service, despite having left the prison service 10 years ago.
“There is no blueprint for this, and having been involved as a POA member for 30 years I personally have not come across anything so challenging,” Gillan wrote. “You never forget how to be a prison officer, and if I can assist by doing that then I am quite prepared to do so if the prison service gives me the green light.”