Socialist Worker

Virus in prison system puts inmates' lives at risk

by Sophie Squire
Issue No. 2703

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Prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day (Pic: Jan Fidler/Flickr)


Coronavirus is ripping through prisons, as cruel conditions put tens of thousands of people at risk. 

Around 2,000 prisoners across Britain may have been infected with Covid-19, says Public Health England. 

The latest threat comes across a backdrop of violence, abuse and neglect. 

And Office of National Statistics data from last week show at least 15 people have died from the virus. 

Prisoners are caged in their cells for 23 hours a day—a measure that the Ministry of Justice says could last until April 2021. 

It said that full prison lockdown, including an end to social visits, education and workshops, could be in place for another year. 

They’re in danger because in dangerously overcrowded prisons inmates are denied proper ­healthcare and are cramped in tiny cells—making social distancing impossible. 

The government is even erecting 500 converted shipping containers for prisoners. 

Rapidly

The confined spaces of prisons means that Covid-19 can spread rapidly—much the same way it did on cruise ships. 

Inmates are already subject to violence and neglect—and treated like punching bags by prison officers. 

A report from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) found that officers were punching inmates in a practice known as “preventative strikes”. 

The prison staff claimed to do this to people they suspect “might misbehave in the future”. 

The CPT, which observed these “preventative strikes” in all three prisons it inspected, called it a “reprehensible practice” and “deeply concerning”.  

And another report by the Inquest charity said that healthcare in prisons was inadequate. 

“The standard of care is not in line with the standard provision in the community”. 

“Staff shortages, and a reliance on bank or agency staff who may lack relevant training, is a common problem,” it said. 

Prisoners often find that concerns about their health are ignored or disbelieved by prison officers. 

And deaths in prison are often classed as “natural deaths” but are preventable. If prisoners had received the proper care that they needed and quickly then health problems could be treated. 

Another factor putting prisoners at a heightened risk of is the high rate of pre-existing health complaints among inmates. 


Death sentence

Andrea Bear Circle, an indigenous woman jailed in a Texas federal prison, died from coronavirus on 28 April. 

She was pregnant when handed a two-year sentence for a drugs related charge in January.

Her baby was delivered on 1 April by caesarean section while Andrea was hospitalised and on a ventilator. 

“Andrea should have never been in jail in the first place,” said Democratic congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. 

She said that Andrea was one of the thousands of people “trapped inside prison systems because of systemic inequities and a failed war on drugs.” 


Torture report 

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited HMP Doncaster, HMP Liverpool and HMP Wormwood Scrubs last year.

Its recently-published report finds that all three prisons are failing to adequately manage prisoners at risk of serious self-harm or suicide. It recommends “concrete steps to significantly reduce the prison population”.


Self harm is on the rise

Self-harming in prison has skyrocketed in the past year—rising by around 14 percent in England and Wales. 

A report by the Ministry of Justice found that self harming incidents were recorded at an average rate of one every eight minutes. 

Frances Crook from the Howard League for Penal Reform said the figures “reveal the sheer scale of human misery behind bars across England and Wales. 

“The figures show that keeping prisoners safe during the pandemic involves so much more than seeking to reduce rates of infection.”


Prisoners’ riots demand a ‘right to life’

Desperate prisoners across the globe are taking action to demand better conditions that minimise their risk of infections. 

Prison riots and protests have erupted in several countries since the pandemic started its deadly grip. 

People in the La Modelo prison in Bogota, Columbia rioted in March due to lack of healthcare and other basic rights. 

“They have us abandoned us like dogs,” said one prisoner in a video posted to social media. 

At least 23 prisoners died during the violence, and nine guards were killed. 

In Peru last week nine people died during a prison riot, in an institution that is at more than double its capacity. 

Inmates at the Miguel Castro prison in Lima protested at the lack of sanitation and health care.

Prisoners climbed on to the roof in an attempt to escape and unfurled a banner. 

It read, “We want Covid-19 tests, we have the right to life”. 


Left to die 

Prisoners are currently being held in their cells for 23 hours a day in order to try to contain the virus.

But why is the government forcing them to stay in dangerous conditions rather than letting them self isolate at home?

The Ministry of Justice originally claimed that 4,000 inmates could be allowed out of prison to relieve pressure on overcrowded jails. 

But as of Tuesday last week, only 33 people had been released. 

Britain is lagging behind other countries, who have released prisoners close to their due date, or low-risk offenders. 

It’s right that some prisoners should be released—and not only during a pandemic. Millions of prisoners across the globe are living in unsanitary, dangerous and inhumane conditions.  The prison system doesn’t rehabilitate people and doesn’t stop crime—socialists should argue that they are not the answer. 


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