Why prisons must get priority for Covid vaccines

By WIP's Chief Executive, Dr Kate Paradine

First published in Huck Magazine

As prisons emerge as a hotbed for Covid-19, Dr Kate Paradine, CEO of Women in Prison, makes the case for urgently protecting residents and staff within them.

Prisons across the country are a ticking time bomb. Social distancing is near impossible, reports suggest mask-wearing is at a minimum, and many residents have been forced to spend time in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. With mental health at risk of irreparable damage for people inside prison, prioritising prison staff and residents for vaccinations needs to be a key part of the Government’s strategy.

If we are giving out the vaccine based on vulnerability and risk posed by the virus, prison residents, staff and support workers should sit alongside care homes and other key workers. Prisons are a hotbed for coronavirus and the latest figures show a monthly jump in deaths of 51 per cent. This is not a question of morality but of safety. Doctors don’t judge a person’s history when giving healthcare and neither should we.

The current plan is that staff and prisoners are eligible for vaccinations according to the same criteria as the public, with those older and with underlying health conditions beginning to receive the vaccination. But this ignores the reality facing such institutions. People in prison have worse health than those on the outside – this coupled with difficulties in social distancing means that residents are more exposed to Covid-19.

Prison staff shortages mean that outbreaks are even more dangerous, as staff numbers dwindle due to self-isolation at home. The vaccine is vital for prison staff, residents and support workers and by implementing a prison vaccination programme we will help protect the NHS.

Like schools and care homes, prisons also pump the virus back into the community. As the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies noted, every week, thousands of potential Covid-19 spreaders go in and out of prisons. Staff go to and from work and hundreds of new prisoners arrive and are released. This is why the vaccine is so vital for both prison staff and residents and why we need to give people early release before numbers climb further.

Prisons aren’t, and never will be, places of safety, but in a pandemic, the failings in the criminal justice system are amplified. The rising death toll is deeply concerning, but social isolation and poor mental health are also key worries for those of us working with people in prison.

The women we work with have lost many of the things that make daily life bearable right now – human contact, regular exercise, seeing loved ones, education – as they spend their time confined to their cells to curb the virus. This simply isn’t a sustainable solution: it’s replacing one health crisis with another.

Women in custody are five times more likely to have ill mental health than the rest of the population, and in prisons, self-harm is rife. It is not just residents who are suffering but their families and children, with in-person visits suspended for nearly a year.

Vaccines are only one part of the picture; we need this to be combined with early release. The Government has acknowledged this, pledging to release 4,000 prisoners at the beginning of the pandemic. But at the end of August, the scheme was ‘paused’ after, releasing only 316 people.

Since March 2020, Women in Prison, along with INQUEST, Birth Companions and other organisations, have been calling on the Government to urgently reduce the numbers of women in prison through a planned programme of early release, including pregnant women and mothers with babies in custody. We know many women in prison could serve the remainder of their sentences in the community where they are better able to address the root causes of offending and reconnect with children and families.

We have all felt the devastating uncertainty of being unable to see family, but where you might have managed a socially distanced walk with a sibling or a chat through a care home window, many women in prison and their loved ones have gone nearly a year without seeing each other in the flesh. While digital solutions in prisons have been expanded, virtual appointments are few and far between – sometimes four weeks apart – and we are hearing about women who were unable to find a single slot in December, meaning they couldn’t see their family at all during Christmas.

It isn’t just family but legal representatives and support workers who are unable to get adequate appointments. If support workers and prison staff, as well as residents, are vaccinated, people in prison can access vital support to protect their mental health and get ready for life outside if they are preparing for release.

‘Through the gate’ – a term used to describe support in place to help people transition from prison into the community – is crucial but it is currently extremely difficult especially when hindered by poor communication between prisons and community support services and last-minute releases. Normally we would work with women from between six months to six weeks prior to release – the longer the better.

This helps us point them in the right direction of services, such as benefits, housing and mental health provision to ensure they can navigate a daunting and heavily bureaucratic process. Now, staff can be told as little as one day in advance. When we remember that two in five women leave prison without settled accommodation, we see how devastating this situation is.

What is already an overwhelming, and at times traumatic, period is being amplified with women unable to get the right support due to preventable time constraints. Solutions include better communication, and giving women mobile phones on release so they can contact support services and their loved ones.

Coronavirus has exacerbated existing failings in the prison system and highlighted what those of us who work within it already know – prisons are not a place of safety or rehabilitation. Where cruelty has been compounded, we can replace it with a system that prioritises care. If we have any hope of emerging from the devastation that the pandemic has caused, we must use it to build a better system of justice.

By abolishing prisons and investing in community-based support services, such as women’s centres, we can tackle the root causes of crime such as domestic violence, poverty and ill mental health, and ensure that we build a loving society that keeps everyone safe.