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Prisoners’ experience under COVID-19
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The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody gives a unique insight into the experiences of those detained in prisons during the Covid-19 crisis.

Keep talking, stay safe

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) has today published an unusual report giving a unique insight into the experiences of those detained in prisons during the Covid-19 crisis. Drawing on radio messages from over 200 prisoners across 55 prisons, almost half the prison estate, the IAP presents voices, usually unheard, and views, often unsought, of people in prison in unprecedented times.

Some of the radio messages were alarming:

"Just to say in case anything happens. I've reported feeling feverish, my head is boiling but I'm cold. I've got cold air sensation in my nostril, I've got aches up my spine into my neck and skull. I reported this to an SO at 11:45AM, asked to see a nurse, also reported at 6pm, no healthcare come to see me. I'm breathless. Leaving this message just in case something happens."

Others heartfelt:

"Letting you know what's happening at 6:39 this morning. I'd like to thank the NHS for everything they've done. It was really moving last night, everyone was banging on the doors and the windows. We do realise what they've done. Coming in to give us medicine and methadone. I always say thank you to them in the morning. I do realise most staff are doing an awesome job, thank you for everyone for what they’ve done. People think we're scumbags but we're not. We are humans who have families so we do appreciate the NHS. Hope everyone is ok, my family is ok, everyone get through this."


The title of the briefing – “Keep talking, stay safe” – is taken from one of the messages received and sums up the importance of providing clear, accurate and honest communication at a time of fear, risk and ambiguity.

Confusion has been noticeably increased by high profile Government announcements which led people to believe that thousands of prisoners would be released early. On 23rd March the Prisons Minister announced that pregnant women and mothers and babies, as well as medically vulnerable people who met requirements for shielding, would be considered for temporary release. Since then just 22 of the 70 women thought to be eligible and seven of the up to 1,500 most vulnerable people have been released.

On 4th April the Lord Chancellor announced the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme (ECTR) to create the headroom needed in overcrowded establishments on medical scientific advice to operate a ‘compartmentalisation strategy’. This would mean that new arrivals could be put in quarantine, people with the virus could be isolated and those most vulnerable could be safely shielded. 

As of 26 May of the 4,000 people who were at first thought to be eligible, just 79 had been released. Eligibility criteria and the convoluted process of early release are mired in complexity and risk aversion. The schemes are hard to understand, difficult to explain and close to impossible to deliver, even for a disciplined service like the prison service.

Prisoners’ messages revealed a high degree of respect and appreciation for staff. Lessons must be learned from the few positive developments during this period. In particular, the IAP encourages the prison service to maintain safer custody and build on the keyworker scheme to ensure prisoners continue to have trusted people they can turn to.

"I'd just like to say thanks to all the staff and all the medical staff for coming in and looking after us. They're coming in, they've got their own families, they've got no protection, they don't have to do it but they do."

prison showers
© Andy Aitchison

"‘I want to know why prison officers aren't wearing gloves, face masks and protection gear? How can we practice safeguarding/safe distancing if we are being put in the shower with four men and locked in there, only an arms distance away?"


Some of the main themes emerging from the messages were:

  • Prisoners are keenly aware of risks of spreading the virus through an absence of PPE and difficulties in complying with social distancing. 
  • Severely restricted regimes are having a negative impact on many prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing.
  • Many vulnerable people spoke highly of the support and help they were getting.
  • For some people there was a strong sense of all being in this together.
  • Others felt very differently.
  • Family contact mattered to many and in-cell phones and additional handsets had made a big difference. For some it was still a struggle to stay in touch with loved ones.
  • Many people were grieving for family and friends who had died from coronavirus.


Based on these messages the IAP makes 10 recommendations:

  1. Ensure that people are given clear, accurate and up to date information in accessible forms that all prisoners understand, and that this is ongoing.
  2. Streamline and expedite the early release scheme to create the headroom needed to take active steps to protect life.
  3. Build on the success of the keyworker scheme to keep people safe.
  4. Improve support systems for staff, introduce regular, professional supervision and properly embed the lessons learned from independent scrutiny.
  5. Protect prisoners and staff. Ensure that there is a proper supply of PPE for prison staff, environments are clean and that prisoners are supplied with PPE during essential work, hospital visits etc.
  6. Meet basic needs, including: exercise and time in the fresh air; nutritious food; clean clothes and a range of in-cell activities to accommodate differing abilities, in a consistent manner across the prison estate.
  7. Increase prisoner engagement and peer support.
  8. Maintain safer custody as a priority, respond to mental health and wellbeing needs and support people who are particularly vulnerable.
  9. Improve family contact.
  10. Introduce bereavement support and counselling for prisoners and staff.

You can keep up with the latest news from IAP on Twitter via iap_tweets

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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