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COVID-19 and the prison population

Edge, C., Hard, J., Wainwright, L. , Gipson, D., Wainwright, V., Shaw, J., Davies, M., Bennallick, M., Sirdifield, C. & Mehay, A. ORCID: 0000-0001-7329-9056 (2021). COVID-19 and the prison population (8). London, UK: The Health Foundation.


This paper provides an overview of the experience and impact in prisons of the pandemic during its first year (March 2020 to March 2021). This focus was chosen due to particular concerns about the impact of the pandemic on this population, which is large, ethnically diverse and ageing, with poorer health than the general population.

During the pandemic, the prison population experienced increased risk of transmission. There were concerns that prisons could become potential high-risk settings for outbreaks and amplifiers of infection, including variants of concern, in the community. In March 2020, prison systems across the UK were quick to introduce a full lockdown, with control measures remaining largely in place for the first year. This rapidly imposed and stringent regime was an important measure for rigorous infection control at the outset of the pandemic and this likely reduced infections and saved lives. Yet, even with these highly restrictive control measures, prisoners still experienced higher cases and mortality rates than the wider population.

By April 2021 – a full year after England announced its first national lockdown – the prison regime had yet to fully unlock. Prisoners remained isolated in cells for an average of 22.5 hours per day, with meaningful activities mostly suspended, along with family visits. Delivering education remained a challenge and concerns around social distancing and interpersonal mixing raised questions about how to return to classroom-based education.

At this point, the Ministry of Justice suggested that when prisons could safely move to less restrictive regimes, visits from family members could recommence. This would depend on community infection levels.

The impact of the pandemic on prisoners could have been reduced through a greater focus on reducing the size of the prison population (in other words, through the early release scheme) and by prioritising prisoners and staff for early COVID-19 vaccination.

In September 2021, 18 months on from the start the pandemic, the landscape in prisons has evolved. Vaccination and asymptomatic testing have been rolled out in line with community guidance and many rehabilitation programmes have been reinstated. Prisons are starting to return to a normal regime, although always aware that the risk of transmission and possible outbreaks remains high.

This working paper demonstrates the complexities of mitigating the pandemic risk in prisons and reveals how the pandemic amplified existing vulnerabilities and inequalities in prisons, as it did with the wider population. Looking to the future, it highlights broad areas requiring attention and robust national funding, including:
• restoring and recovering services
• focusing on digital innovations in prison
• strengthening inter-agency working
• a greater focus on the wider determinants of health and equity.

Publication Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
Q Science > QR Microbiology > QR180 Immunology
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Healthcare Services Research & Management
[thumbnail of WP08-COVID-19-and-the-prison-population.pdf] Text - Published Version
This document is not freely accessible due to copyright restrictions.


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