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PRISONS have always been dangerous places to work, and the past decade of austerity cuts to staffing and resources have made them even less safe, with recorded assaults on staff more than tripling to over 10,000 a year.
But the coronavirus crisis has brought a new deadly risk to workers — not just prison officers but educators, healthcare staff, cleaners, caterers, administrators, probation officers and more, many of whom are classed as vulnerable to infection.
Richard Coker, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, recently described prisons as “epidemiological pumps” and warned: “The risk of exposure of Covid-19 to prisoners and staff when new cases enter a prison is far, far greater than the risk to individuals in the wider community.”
Under pressure from unions, the government started dramatically restricting prison activities on March 24, with all visits cancelled, classes suspended and prisoners confined to cells for 23 hours a day to prevent “explosive outbreaks” that could tear through the population. The real lockdown had begun.
Ministers also announced plans to reduce overcrowding by installing hundreds of temporary cells and releasing, under house arrest, all pregnant prisoners — thought to number about 70 — and up to 4,000 other inmates considered low risk and within two months of the end of their sentences.
This ambition was significantly less than the 15,000-prisoner reduction called for by Public Health England and others to ensure single-cell accommodation across the estate.
Shamefully, only 21 pregnant women and 60 others had been released early as of May 12 — a reflection, perhaps, of how unpopular this scheme is among the “hang ’em and flog ’em” Tory backbenchers.
Despite this, the prison population has fallen by almost 3,500 since mid-March, with a restricted courts service leading to less incarceration.
And, mercifully, earlier estimates of up to 2,300 extra deaths — since downgraded to less than 100 — have so far been avoided, with 21 prisoners and seven members of staff tragically dying due to Covid-19 as of May 12.
But infections are still rising, and only a third of symptomatic prisoners have been tested, according to latest figures.
The risk of explosive outbreaks remains high, as is that of violent disorder — as seen in Italy, where lockdown led to riots, overdoses and escapes.
Prisoners and staff are all fearful for the future, yet relations between them are generally better than before, according to unions.
Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the Prison Officers Association (POA), told Radio 5 last week that “the silver lining for us is seeing a massive reduction in assaults” and that, “surprisingly, self-harm has reduced significantly among the prison population.”
He explained that “prisoners actually feel safe and are confident in the new regime,” adding: “We’re getting them out of the cells into the open air as much as we can.”
Prisoners have a steady supply of education and activity packs, prepared by teaching staff working remotely, and extra television and phone credit.
Hundreds of locked mobile phones have been distributed to prisoners without in-cell technology, but far more needs to be done to expand “virtual visits” to maintain vitally important contact with family and friends during this traumatic time.
But, as on the outside, there is growing pressure in prisons to ease the lockdown, despite the clear success it’s having on controlling the virus.
Labour MP Sharon Hodgson told the Commons at the end of last month: “Union sources report that some rogue governors are attempting to return to business-as-usual practices such as unlocking large numbers of prisoners or restarting training courses.” She called on the government to “condemn this reckless behaviour.”
Responding, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland agreed that there was a “danger of overenthusiasm going ahead of the guidance,” warning governors and other staff that they must “stick to the guidelines.”
To prevent any premature relaxing of restrictions, whether by governors or the government, prison unions have come together to list their key demands.
The POA, along with the Royal College of Nursing, the University & College Union, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Public & Commercial Services union, Unite, Unison and the GMB, wrote today to Buckland, raising their concerns about unlocking too fast, too soon.
The unions insist that current regimes must stay in place until the numbers of Covid-19 cases are much lower than they are now, with a sustained downward trend, and there is “confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly.”
In addition, risk assessments and safe systems of work must be agreed with union reps and reviewed frequently, while all staff must have access to a “whistle-blowing hotline” and receive guarantees that the prison service will “intervene to prevent governors or contractors from enforcing unsafe working practices.”
And assurances must be made that “no-one will be forced back into the workplace, sanctioned or sacked if they are genuinely unable to work, including those who are high risk, self-isolating, shielding, pregnant or have children who are unable to go to school.”
Testing will also be key. Even when the virus has been brought under control, prisons will still be vulnerable to “vectors” of transmission from staff and new prisoners, who are currently quarantined for two weeks on arrival.
The whole estate remains a tinderbox — and, while the outside world rightly focuses on preventing a devastating second or even third wave of infections later in the year, prisons are still climbing their first peak.
One mis-step could trigger catastrophe. As with reopening schools, the government must listen to front-line workers who are risking their lives performing a public service.
Covid-19 has proved beyond doubt that prison staff really are “hidden heroes” — not just during this crisis but year in, year out.
As with other key workers who keep our world running smoothly behind the scenes, prison staff behind those high walls deserve better pay and conditions; but they also deserve a safer workplace and more respect for the vital and dangerous work they do protecting the public.
If and when we put this pandemic behind us, there can be no return to business as usual if that means prison staff suffering almost 30 violent assaults a day — more than one every hour.
As Mark Fairhurst makes very clear: “Returning to chaos is not an option.”
Charley Allan works for Solidarity Consulting, which organises the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group. See @JusticeUnions on Twitter for more information.
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