Labour’s David Lammy has expressed concern over “very alarming” figures showing that the number of prisoners in England and Wales who have tested positive for coronavirus more than doubled in the month of October.
Official statistics published by the Ministry of Justice today show that 1,529 prisoners or children across 99 establishments have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, including in 45 settings last month.
The document reveals that the number of new monthly confirmed cases increased by 883 from October to September – and five deaths of prisoners occurred last month, which constitute the first deaths since June earlier this year.
A total of 55 prisoners, children in custody and probation service users have died during the pandemic having tested positive for Covid-19 or where there was a clinical assessment that it was a contributory factor in their deaths.
Reacting to the data, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said: “These figures are very alarming. Rapidly rising coronavirus infections in prisons reflect the government’s wider failure to get control of the virus.”
Warning of potential consequences if the government does not get a grip of the crisis, he added: “The lives of staff and inmates are at risk if these outbreaks are not controlled, and there is also a risk of transmission to the wider community.
“The Ministry of Justice should prioritise meeting its own targets to increase headroom across the prison estate. In addition, the government must urgently use the national lockdown to introduce an effective test, track and trace system across the country.”
Measures were introduced early in the pandemic to ease pressure on prisons by releasing a number of low-risk offenders near the end of their custodial sentence and some risk-assessed vulnerable prisoners such as pregnant women.
But the scheme was paused in August, according to the Ministry of Justice, and such data is therefore no longer reported. The total number of prisoners released in this way was 316, including 54 ‘compassionate releases’.
Labour warned last week of a “damaging” and “dangerous” situation in English prisons as the government has continued to implement Covid restrictions that leave many prisoners stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day.
Restrictions include a ban on social visits for adult prisoners in England as well as a continuation of previous measures introduced in March, which saw many inmates confined to their cells for almost the entire day.
Commenting on the rules, Lammy said: “Locking prisoners in their cells for 23 hours per day for many months, without access to rehabilitation or family visits, is not only damaging for mental health, it is dangerous.
“The less opportunity prisoners get to turn their lives around inside, the more likely they will re-offend when they are let out. The government must learn from its mistakes by using the extra time the second lockdown buys to finally get control of the pandemic.”
The strict regime of restrictions enforced in prisons from March reduced the time that prisoners could spend outside their cells to around 30 minutes a day, suspended prison transfers and required new arrivals to quarantine for 14 days.
The chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales warned last month, before the announcement of the new lockdown, that locking up prisoners in what amounts to solitary confinement was causing “irreparable damage” to their mental health.