UK prisoners with flu symptoms forced to share cells with those with Covid-19

Prisoners who have symptoms of Covid-19 are being placed in the same cells as those who have tested positive for the virus, the Guardian has learned.

The strategy, known as cohorting, has prompted fears that inmates with conventional flu symptoms risk contracting the more serious coronavirus.

What do the restrictions involve?

People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:

  • Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals

Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.

Last Thursday and Friday, 12 inmates at Wandsworth prison in south-west London tested positive for the disease and were moved to a designated isolation wing.

A further 40 inmates, who presented with coughs and respiratory problems, are now resident on the same landings. All the prisoners in “isolation” are sharing cells. Meals are brought to them and some report not being allowed out for showers.

The measures form part of guidance issued to prisons last week by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). “If facing multiple cases of those displaying symptoms, ‘cohorting’, or the gathering of potentially infected cases into a designated area, may be necessary,” it reads.

A source at HMP Wandsworth told the Guardian that there were no plans for further testing at the jail, and prisoners who display symptoms are instead being placed on the isolation wing. The source said 52 prisoners were now classified as “infected”. Separately, they reported that D wing at the prison has had no hot water supply for a week.

The revelation came as the Guardian learned that Justice secretary Robert Buckland was looking at releasing pregnant prisoners, amid growing concern about the vulnerability of inmates to the spread of coronavirus. It is understood that the government is not considering a larger scale release of low risk prisoners.

An 84-year-old man became the first British prisoner to die after contracting coronavirus last week. As of Sunday night, 55 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 across 21 prisons. Thirteen prison staff have tested positive across seven prisons, while four Prisoner Escort and Custody Services staff had tested positive.

The Prisoners Advice Service ( PAS) on Monday published a template for prisoners and their families to refer to in the event that they contracted coronavirus and needed to ask for release on compassionate grounds, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Current restrictions on legal aid means prisoners are unlikely to get free legal representation for such applications.

Lubia Begum-Rob, the director of PAS, said placing prisoners who tested positive for coronavirus alongside those with only symptoms breached prison service guidelines, which state: “Any prisoner or detainee with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature should be placed in protective isolation for 7 days.”

She said: “Cohorting prisoners, because of multiple cases of inmates displaying symptoms, can only work in containing the virus if each prisoner is kept in his or her own cell.

“Such prisoners should not be sharing a cell with another displaying symptoms, given that one prisoner may have the common flu and the other may have Covid-19.”

Coronavirus: New York prison inmates to mass produce hand sanitizer – video

A report, published in 2018, found 15% of the prison population had respiratory issues. In 2019, inspectors found that 10 out of 35 prisons inspected failed to meet minimum standards of cleanliness and infection control compliance.

Last month a report from the National Audit Office revealed a chronic state of disrepair across the prison estate, from leaking roofs and failed heating systems to broken cell windows and rat infestations.

Concerns have been raised about the safety of older prisoners at risk from Covid-19. There are about 1,700 prisoners over 70, with many in their 80s and a growing number over 90.

Last week, the MoJ announced that all prison visits in England and Wales were cancelled until further notice. All prisoners are confined to their cells apart from cleaners, kitchen staff and other key prisoner workers. All inmates who normally work are being paid regardless.

The MoJ said inmates who could not access the telephones on the wings had access to secure phone handsets, in order to contact relatives and friends on pre-authorised contact numbers.

A spokesman for the MoJ confirmed cohorting measures were in place in prisons to “protect the rest of the prison population”. He added that decisions on testing for Covid-19 on prisoners were taken by Public Health England.

The MoJ said: “Our utmost priority is to protect life during the coronavirus outbreak. We have flexible plans in place to keep all staff and prisoners as safe as possible, and are issuing secure phone handsets to help offenders keep in touch with their loved ones.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.