In prisons such as Wandsworth Prison in South London, COVID-19 poses great risk to the safety of those incarcerated. WikiCommons

As we are frequently reminded, COVID-19 poses an ‘unprecedented’ challenge across the world, demanding immediate and innovative solutions. It has revealed a deep vein of compassion in the UK, with gestures such as nationwide applause for the NHS, community mutual aid and supermarket hours exclusively for the elderly. Sadly, there are notable exceptions to this embrace of solidarity, and those imprisoned are one glaring example.

The pandemic has further illuminated how the welfare of incarcerated people is side-lined through ignorance and indifference. Hyper-vilification by the media and civil authorities, as well as chronic underfunding, have left those in prison let down by the state. They are ignored, as statistics lie low and limited news coverage keeps them in the shadows. A prisoner’s ‘normality’ is rarely broadcast, but urgently needs to be discussed in light of the current crisis, which poses a unique risk to the prison system, for many reasons.

“At the best of times, a phone call for someone in prison can be a lifeline”

Even in the comfort of many of our homes, isolation has not been altogether easy. In prison, solitude is unfortunately far more ubiquitous, prevalent before the onset of COVID-19. A particularly brutal punishment used in the system is solitary confinement: to be locked up for 23 hours per day, alone with limited – if not totally extinguished – access to phone calls and visits, taking a grave toll on physical and mental health. Even then, several UK prisons have been found to breach United Nations torture protocol, further exploiting this already abusive system. At the very least, COVID-19 provides us with an opportunity to take stock, to understand that extended isolation should only ever be used in a situation as extreme as this: in order to impede a dangerous pandemic.

This leads us to question why, in a situation where prisons are “petri-dishes” to the pandemic, we are not hearing more about how the government is managing it. We are told to wash our hands as often as possible, in order to stem the virus’s spread. But, in some prisons, soap is no longer distributed as a ‘standard’ item. We are told to stay in touch with loved ones virtually, but even telephones are generally not readily available, with some prisons having only one telephone between hundreds, giving inmates little opportunity to connect with loved ones. At the best of times, a phone call for someone in prison can be a lifeline, but tariffs remain extortionate and many simply can’t afford to pay the phone credit.

“COVID-19 provides an opportunity to make the prison present in our lives.”

In the light of the COVID-19 crisis, any institutions have granted extra phone credit but it’s minimal and largely ineffective. ‘L’, currently incarcerated in the UK, describes how limited this is, following a grant of £5: “This morning I’ve called around my family checking in on them. It usually works out at 90p for 20 minutes, it’s now £1.40. […] we’re in our cells more than ever now and need to contact our families during this worrying time. I appreciate the extra call time than we would have done but it’s created frustration, they give us hope but there’s always a trick.”*

Further sources of respite – such as education, mentor positions, jobs, and visitation – have all been cancelled. ‘L’ goes on to describe the trials of having no income: “with my mentor job being temporarily stopped the time being I’ve no income, the strain then goes to my family who are already struggling through this difficult time. One day at a time is all we can do.”

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment have emphasied the prioritization of prisoners’ health and safety during the pandemic. However, the term “health and safety” presents a problem at the best of times, and reducing this access to vital welfare is surely detrimental to prisoners’ health. Furthermore, one article from 2018 argued that “judging from inspection reports, anecdotes and statistics, many jails are far from safe.” With every year spent in prison, a person loses two years off their life expectancy, amounting to three years of freedom lost for every year incarcerated. Physically and mentally, prison weakens people and prisoners are therefore susceptible to suffering badly from COVID-19. Combine this with reports denouncing overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary conditions in UK prisons (such as in HMP Coldingley) and you have an impending disaster. It should be treated as such and urgently so.


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L’s account reveals that, now more than ever, we need to platform voices from inside the prison system. Those incarcerated are already made to feel discarded and ignored, but the coronavirus presents a further threat to their safety and humanity. Emotions are running high and the risks are manifold, yet the prison system remains a low national priority. Of course there is no simple solution, but there is a necessity to prioritise and approach this precarious situation in a way that does it justice.

In ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’, Angela Davis explains how and why we often consider prison as disconnected from our own lives: their existence is at once ‘taken for granted’ yet ‘absent.’ COVID-19 provides an opportunity to make the prison present in our lives. Having jammed the cogs of society worldwide, it calls for a vast adjustment of norms: we must adapt accordingly. Innovation and compassion are more necessary than ever in order to adapt prison norms sufficiently and successfully.

* Testimony from ‘L’, who is currently incarcerated in the UK, is credited to @bluebaglife, an Instagram account offering the perspectives of all people affected by prison and addiction. L’s full account can be found on their private account, along with many others giving much-needed insight into prison and addiction.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following information and support is available:

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