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Covid-19: Prisoners and Children in Custody

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of (1) prisoners, and (2) children in custody, who have tested positive for COVID-19.

My Lords, the latest available data, published on 13 November, confirms that 1,521 adult prisoners and eight children have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, across 99 establishments. The safety of staff and those in our care remains a top priority. I am pleased to report that the latest public health reports indicate that the measures we have put in place are working to save lives and are limiting the transmission of the virus in our prisons.

My Lords, the current second wave of coronavirus has been much worse for the prison estate than the first. Added to the absence of family visits and education and training, and the replacement of sentenced prisoners by those held on remand, the strength of the second wave is very worrying. Despite the valiant work of prison staff, the problem remains of too many prisoners for the space available. Having abandoned the early release scheme in August, what now is the Government’s route to a safe reduction in prison numbers?

My Lords, we are still not full in our prisons. We are working with temporary accommodation in our prisons, and we are doing everything that we can to compartmentalise prisoners so that we are not having a second wave in our prisons. We are using temporary accommodation and single cells to make sure that they are as safe as possible.

My Lords. The Covid figures cited by the noble Baroness are despite prisoners being locked down in their cells virtually all the time. In Her Majesty’s Prison Lindholme, nearly 900 prisoners were let out of their cells for less than an hour a day. What is the estimate of the proportion of prisoners across the entire prison estate confined in this way? Rehabilitation and education in prisons has almost come to complete halt. What assessment have the Government made of the long-term consequences of this on reoffending, violence in prisons and the mental health of prisoners?

My Lords, the mental health of prisoners is one of our top priorities. We are acutely aware of the mental and physical strain that the restrictions have placed on those in custody. We have provided tailored guidance to support those in custody during this challenging time, including specific guidance for groups whose well-being may be more affected by the restrictions, such as older prisoners, those with learning difficulties and groups known to be at risk of self-harm, suicide or violence.

Your Lordships will have heard me mention that there are five prison establishments located within my diocese. In respect of one of them, will the noble Baroness join me in paying tribute to the governor of Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth, Graham Barrett, who was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his sterling efforts during the Covid pandemic in keeping infection rates so low in the jail—and indeed to all Prison Service staff recognised in this way for achieving so much in such challenging circumstances? As the noble Baroness is aware from the previous supplementary question, out-of-cell activity in many establishments is now limited to one hour or less in 24. Can she assure the House that such provision will not slip beyond the 24-hour period into longer periods of confinement, which happens when the 24-hour period is variable? Will any priority be given to rolling out the vaccine to inmates and staff?

My Lords, I first congratulate Graham Barrett from Wandsworth prison on his OBE. Our thanks go to all staff in our prisons and those working with prisoners in communities for all their work in the past months. I will not reply again on the point about 23 hours. On vaccines, we are working on how we can roll out the vaccines in prisons in accordance with the tiers for vaccination within the community.

My Lords, back in June 2019, I had the privilege of visiting HMP Bure to see at first hand the transformational work by both staff and prisoners focused on rehabilitation. As part of my visit, I attended a residents’ council meeting, where prisoners shared with me the tangible benefits of maintaining family ties. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, as a result of the pandemic and the possibility that prisoners are likely to suffer extreme restrictions resulting in possible damage to mental health and, in turn, rehabilitation, it is more important than ever to do all that is possible to facilitate family contact via in-cell telephones and video calls?

My Lords, family contact is crucial to the well-being of prisoners. That is why we quickly introduced video calling when the exceptional circumstances meant that social visits could no longer continue. We also introduced a package of support, including an extra £5 of phone credit per week per prisoner. Over 1,500 secure mobile PIN phones were also established in in-cell telephony if that was not already available. These measures have enabled prisoners to be in more contact with their loved ones, and we continue to look at what more we can do, particularly regarding the review by my noble friend Lord Farmer on maintaining family ties.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether it is general practice for the Prison Service to regularly check staff and prisoners using lateral flow testing? This method of testing is being used in many care homes, colleges and secondary schools and the results are ready within half an hour.

My Lords, I am not sure about lateral flow testing, but we are routinely testing front-line staff and offenders to bolster our defences against the virus. Routine staff testing is live now—as of yesterday, I believe—across all sites in England and Wales and we are now working on rolling out prisoner testing on reception and transfer, which is already live in over half of our establishments.

My Lords, I refer to my relevant interests in the register. Does my noble friend accept that the pandemic has brought with it administrative problems for the management of prisons? Will she further accept that a common theme this afternoon is the amount of time that prisoners are spending locked up in their cells—as much as 23 hours a day? Will she accept that all prisoners, but particularly younger prisoners, need to get outside to take exercise and enjoy fresh air? What precisely are her department and the Prison Service doing to ensure that that happens?

My Lords, we set out a national framework in June 2020, which sets out how prisoners can safely increase the amount of time out of the cell and the purposeful activity that the Prison Service can provide that still protects the health and lives of staff and prisoners. The Youth Custody Service in particular is now focusing on young people getting essential activity, which includes getting out in the fresh air as well as education, not just online but in small groups, and recreational activities.

My Lords, are the Government systematically monitoring strains of the virus in prisons to detect mutations through all prison healthcare staff who are appropriately trained and resourced to monitor Covid—with swabs sent for PCR and genetic analysis sampling—and trained to manage sick prisoners adequately, including in oxygen monitoring and pointers to needing hospital and possible intensive care transfer?

I am afraid I cannot give that much detail to the noble Baroness. All I can say is that we are testing and using PPE more and more in prisons. I will write to the noble Baroness about the specific issues that she raised.

My Lords, the total number of prisoners who have tested positive for coronavirus has more than doubled in the month of October. The latest figures for November are not yet complete, but are likely to show a further increase. Do the Government believe that the only way to contain the spread of the virus is to keep prisoners locked in their cells? Surely a better approach would be for the Ministry of Justice to prioritise its own targets to increase headroom across the prison estate?

My Lords, I think I have answered about prisoners staying many hours in their cells, but it is important that we continue to test prisoners and staff and are able to compartmentalise prisoners so that they are safe and secure. As public health information comes forward and we can do more in prisons, we will make sure that both prisoners and staff are safe and well.