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The prison population and coronavirus

COVID-19 lockdown
My scrutiny of the prison population in England and Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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What's happening to the prison population?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a coalition of penal reform charities, criminal justice commentators and all those concerned with the health and well-being of our prisoners have been calling for a swift reduction in our prison population.

There is a clear consensus that prison conditions, with a minimum of 15,000 people in prison sharing cells designed for one person, make it very likely that high numbers of prisoners and the staff caring for them will be infected.

The first death from coronavirus in the UK was on 31st January this year.

Early release

On 31st March, the Ministry Justice announced that pregnant women in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public would be temporary released from prison to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus. The MoJ also said that prisoners in Mother and Baby Units meeting the same risk assessment would also be released with their children. This measure was said to apply to up to 70 prisoners. In evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee (in a virtual meeting) on 7th April, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said six of this cohort of women had been released, a figure updated to 14 at the 14 April virtual Justice Committee hearing with Prisons & Probation Minister Lucy Frazer.

On the 4th April, the MoJ announced that risk assessed prisoners who were within two months of their release date would be temporarily released from jail, “as part of the national plan to protect the NHS and save lives”. This cohort amounted to approximately 4,000 prisoners.

Up to 31st August when the early release scheme was paused only 316 have been released on all these schemes combined.

Monitoring of COVID in prison

The purpose of this blog post is to scrutinise the impact of coronavirus on people in prison.

Every Friday, I update this post with the latest official figures to show the number of people in prison and the number of positive COVID tests. The post also gives weekly updates on the numbers of people in prison who have tragically lost their lives to the virus.

Prison population updated 22 October 2021

The chart has been updated with today’s official statistics. The prison population now stands at 79,221, an increase of 188 on last week and the highest figure since last September. This figure represents a total reduction of 3,887 individuals compared to 31st January 2020, the date of the first death by coronavirus in the UK.

It is clear that the courts are not catching up with the backlog of cases which built up throughout the first period of lockdown – at least not for those offences which are likely to result in a custodial sentence. Further down this blog post you can see the latest (up to the end of June 2021) data on the backlogs for both Magistrates’ and Crown Courts.

Coronavirus deaths

The MoJ HMPPS COVID-19 official statistics updated on 8 October with information up to 31  August 2021 show that:

  • 234 people in the care of HMPPS have died since the start of the pandemic, having tested positive within 28 days of death or where there was a clinical assessment COVID-19 was a contributory factor in their death. Of whom 159 were prisoners and 75 were individuals supervised by the probation service.
  • Of the 234 deaths, 203 were suspected or confirmed to be caused by COVID-19, 132 were prisoners and 71 were supervised individuals.
  • 19,066 prisoners or children in custody have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, across 128 establishments, almost all of whom were adults.
  • There were 529 new confirmed prisoner and children cases in September 2021,
    which is 277 less cases than August 2021.
  • 65 establishments had prisoners or children testing positive in September 2021, 6
    less than in August 2021.


The grim chart below records the monthly deaths of people in prison and on probation who have tested positive for COVID.


Positive COVID tests

I have created a new animated chart tracking the number of positive COVID tests in prison on monthly basis below:
Total Positive COVID Tests in Prison

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