Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

The approach taken by the UK government to Covid-19 in prisons has highlighted the need for reform to the prison system.    

The outbreak of Covid-19 posed an obvious problem for prisons; with such cramped conditions, they represented likely centres for cases of the virus. The UK government therefore took steps to reduce the possibility of outbreaks: closing prisons to outside visitors, increasing the hours that prisoners were confined to their cells, and developing an early release scheme. Whatever their intentions, these measures reflect a widespread perception that prisoners are less worthy of adequate support and protection from the virus. In her seminal text ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ Angela Davis argues that the development of capitalism has led to the treatment of prisoners as expendable objects and sources of profit; treatment of prisoners throughout the pandemic attests to this.

Firstly, the ban on outside visitors to prisons was not followed by sufficient replacement measures. While many of us have taken comfort from video calls with friends and family during the pandemic, this has not always been an option for prisoners, many of whom have been denied such basic human interactions. A report by the Howard League for Prison Reform stated that the amount of phone credit and time on the phone which prisoners receive massively varies. This has left several prisoners feeling even more isolated from family and friends, and detached from important support networks.

Furthermore, increasing the hours that prisoners must spend inside cells has also led to a mass deterioration in mental health. While adult prisoners are typically meant to spend eight to ten hours a day in their cell, some prisoners have been obliged to spend twenty-three, which constitutes solitary confinement. This, inevitably, has been having a detrimental impact on the mental health of prisoners; social psychologist Craig Haney has noted that rates of suicide or self-harm are highest when prisoners are placed in solitary confinement. Yet the mass deterioration in mental health has not been met with increased funding for wellbeing services, nor has it meant a progress in the accessibility of such services; a worrying number of prisoners have reported a loss of access to adequate mental health support. 

In contrast to the more repressive measures outlined above, the early release scheme may have been considered to represent a radical approach, but this too has suffered from a lack of suitable execution. The scheme, which would allow certain prisoners coming to the end of their sentences to be released early, has not been taken up as expected. Of the approximately 4,000 eligible prisoners, only 275 were released before the pausing of the scheme in August. Here, the lack of haste to release prisoners indicates a lack of concern for their welfare.

Overall, it appears that the approach to prisoners during the pandemic supports Angela Davis’ argument that they are popularly perceived as expendable objects. In some cases, for example, the new measures have meant that prisoners have even lost access to showers for several days, furthering the idea that they are undeserving of basic human rights.  Moves to improve access to important services for prisoners would go some way towards reversing this perception. For example, the prioritising of prisoners and prison staff for the vaccine, as well as the extension of video calls, would contribute to the recognition of these groups as equally deserving of safety and care.