COVID-19: Lockdown Experiences of Ethnic Minority Prisoners

A Record of our Own: Lockdown Experiences of Ethnic Minority Prisoners

Zahid Mubarek Trust

‘While prisoners may not immediately come to mind as a group that is particularly vulnerable, a quick review of the demographics of the prison estate shows that a significant percentage of its population is at increased risk from Covid-19. Individuals from disadvantaged sectors of society who suffer from serious health inequalities, people from ethnic minority communities and men all experience higher mortality rates from Covid-19. These groups are also all overrepresented in prisons in England and Wales.2 As well as having a high percentage of people who are significantly more at risk from Covid-19 than the general population, prisons and other detention facilities are also places in which social distancing measures are difficult to implement and the onward transmission of the disease is more likely. This is because prisons house large numbers of people in a confined area; rely on the use of communal facilities (e.g. cells, showers and eating areas); and generally have poor ventilation. These structural challenges to protecting the prison population against Covid-19 have been extenuated by under-funding of the prison estate over the last decade. In October 2019, the House of Commons Justice Committee raised concerns about inadequate capacity and poor conditions in the prison system and described it as being in the midst of an “enduring crisis of safety and decency” with a backlog of maintenance estimated at £900 million.’

‘In March 2020, the Government introduced emergency measures to suppress the spread of Covid-19 and safeguard the health of the population. These policies restricted people’s day to day activities across the UK, including their ability to work, study and travel. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) implemented a series of policy changes in line with the Government’s lockdown measures which significantly changed the way prisons operate and dramatically reduced access to detention facilities for external organisations and individuals.

This also meant that the majority of independent oversight and support mechanisms for those detained in England and Wales were suspended. Both Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) had to significantly reduce the scope of their work.

Despite these limitations, during the first four months of the pandemic, HMIP conducted 31 short scrutiny visits (excluding Immigration Removal Centres) and the IMBs published three updates about the findings in 13 prisons from its freephone helpline. These reports give important insights into how 44 prison establishments in England and Wales responded to the pandemic.

Valuable as these reports and other high-level inquiries into the impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system have been, none of the investigations undertaken in the first four months of the pandemic had a specific focus on the experiences of prisoners from ethnic minority communities. For these reasons, the Zahid Mubarek Trust, in partnership with The Traveller Movement and Partners of Prisoners (POPS), decided to undertake a review of the experiences of ethnic minority prisoners, including those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, during lockdown.

Download the full report here