Forgotten Behind Bars: New AIUK report and a call to action

As you will likely be aware, the Cardiff AIUK group have been campaigning on the issue of the use of excessive cellular confinement in UK prisons for a number of months. Our own, Dr Dennis Eady, spoke on the concerns of the group at the recent AIUK Wales Conference, Activism in Action, and included a call to action which we share with you all today.

On the 18th March 2021, Amnesty International UK released an extensive report on measures used in prisons across the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This report, Forgotten Behind Bars: Covid-19 and Prisons, raises grave concerns about the approach taken by HM Prison Service here in the UK across a number of key areas and calls on governments to urgently address their failings with regard to prisoner safety and wellbeing.

In this blog post you’ll find details from the report relating to each area of concern and we would encourage you to write to your local MP asking them to raise your concerns with Nadhim Zahawi MP, Matt Hancock MP and Boris Johnson PM. At the end of this post you’ll find a letter drafted by the Cardiff group that once again urges ministers to rethink how those in prisons, detention centres and the staff at these facilities are prioritised for the vaccine. We consider appropriate vaccine rollout in these environments to be central to ensuring that the inhumane conditions occurring in UK prisons ceases.

Infections in Prisons, pp. 14-15

‘Epidemiologists and other scientists in several countries, have described prisons as “epicenters” for the spread of the virus. […] Available data in countries monitored for this research indicates worrying patterns of COVID-19 infections in prisons across all regions.

[…] As of 31 January 2021, 10,354 prisoners or children had tested positive for COVID-19 across 126 prisons and Youth Custody Service sites in the UK constituent countries of England and Wales. 12,184 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. 

Thirty-six staff had died having tested positive for COVID-19 within 28 days of the death or where there was a clinical assessment that COVID-19 was a contributory factor in their deaths regardless of cause of death. Of these, 15 deaths of staff occurred in the three months from November 2020 to January 2021. One UK public health expert described prisons as “epidemiological pumps” in March 2020, referring to the way in which the virus was spreading from the community into prison and back out to the community.

Overcrowding and continued admission of new detainees, as well as movements of prison staff, visitors and service providers, are widely recognized as major contributing factors to COVID-19 infections in prisons. Demographic factors also likely impact the risk prisoners and staff face related to COVID-19, given the situation in the wider community. […] Studies conducted in the UK also revealed that individuals from Black and South Asian ethnic groups were more likely to experience severe symptoms and death. The reasons for such disparities mirror social and economic disparities, as well as the health manifestations of those disparities, including increased prevalence of comorbidities, such as chronic disease, cardiovascular disease and pulmonary problems.’

Isolation Measures, p.7

‘Amnesty International has identified several concerning examples of use of isolation and quarantine measures. Although governments have justified such measures on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 or associated unrest, lack of staff or testing capacity, these considerations alone do not justify practices which may have resulted in solitary confinement. 

In some cases, the measures introduced did not meet the tests of necessity and proportionality and appeared arbitrary, excessive and abusive, giving rise to concerns that they could amount to a breach of the prohibition of torture and other, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In countries including Argentina and the UK, National Preventive Mechanisms, which are mandated to monitor the treatment of and conditions for detainees, found that some detainees were subjected to isolation regimes in individual cells for up to 23 hours per day for periods lasting weeks or months. 

Amnesty International recognizes that isolation and quarantine measures may be necessary as a temporary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but their form and duration must be strictly necessary in the case and proportionate, including by being time-limited and non-discriminatory. The measures should also have a clear legal basis and the decision-making process should be comprehensive and transparent..

Inadequate Data, p. 17

‘As of September 2020, few of the countries monitored by Amnesty International had publicly available official data on rates of testing, positive cases and deaths among detainees and an even smaller group of states provided data disaggregated by age, gender, ethnicity and pre-existing medical conditions. In a response to Amnesty International, the UK government in fact said that it was not able to provide the requested information in disaggregated form, as the costs of gathering the data would exceed a limit (£600, around US$830) set for central government. This failure of governments to gather and provide reliable data on rate of infections and death related to COVID-19 is part of a wider pattern.’

Testing, Screening and Treatment, p. 22

‘COVID-19 has laid bare years of underinvestment and neglect of health services in prisons. Across all the countries monitored as part of this research, irrespective of the economic status of the state, prison authorities were unable to cope with the increased demand for preventive health measures and medical treatment of prisoners. While finding reliable and updated data on screening and testing protocols and practices in prisons proved difficult, available information showed acute shortages of testing capacity, practices inconsistent with public health guidance and concerning examples of discriminatory and punitive measures. 

[…] For instance, in the UK, an interim assessment of the situation in prisons by public health experts in April 2020 confirmed limited and variable access to testing for prisoners. The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, a non-departmental public body providing advice to the UK’s Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody, quoted a prisoner saying, “there’s lots of prisoners dying and have corona but there is no plan for testing for prisoners. Government has completely forgotten about prisoners, we are still human beings…”’

Overcrowding, p.29

‘In England and Wales in the UK, the authorities put in place a new policy (the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme) and issued additional guidance for the Compassionate Release on Temporary Licence scheme. The End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, introduced in April 2020, provided for the “early release of stringently assessed low-risk prisoners who were within two months of their release date”. No high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent or sexual offences or those who posed a risk to national security, were considered for release. The policy was paused at the end of August 2020 and this decision was kept “under constant review”. Under the Compassionate Release on Temporary Licence scheme, pregnant women, prisoners with their babies in custody (in mother and baby units) and those defined by National Health Service guidelines as “medically extremely vulnerable” to COVID-19 could apply for Compassionate Release on Temporary Licence on a case-by-case basis. In April, the Ministry of Justice announced that up to 4,000 detainees would be eligible for release under these schemes. However, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, an executive agency of the UK’s Ministry of Justice responsible for the correctional services in England and Wales, reported that, as of 30 September, only 316 detainees had been released early under these temporary release schemes. Several organizations expressed concern about the lack of public guidance and clarity surrounding the schemes.’

Access to Vaccines, pp. 36-37

‘While encouragingly some countries have already adopted policies that put prison populations and staff among the priority groups to receive vaccines, many others are either silent or remain unclear on their plans.

[…] In the UK, where the vaccination roll-out in the community started in early December 2020, the Vaccine Deployment Minister told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the government would vaccinate according to age cohorts, rather than prioritizing any particular group or institutional setting, suggesting that both prisoners and prison staff who fell within the prioritized age groups would be vaccinated as a priority. On 29 January 2021, vaccine roll-out among prisoners in England and Wales started, following the same prioritization as within the community.’

If you share our concerns for those in UK prisons and detention centers then please use the template letter below to write to your local representative asking them to take your queries further. If you’re not sure who your local MP is you can find out here: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/

If you would like to contact the Cardiff group about this or our other campaigns you can email amnesty.cardiff@btinternet.com

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