Chart of the week: The rising tide of Covid-19 infections in our overcrowded prisons

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. This week, with new data showing that coronavirus infections rose more rapidly across the prisoner population in December than they did across the general population, Dr Miranda Davies and Eilís Keeble look at this worrying trend in context and consider the burden the pandemic is placing upon this already vulnerable population.

Chart of the week

Published: 19/01/2021

There has been a steep rise in cases of Covid-19 in prisons over the last few months. The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic was 6,007 at the end of December, in a population of around 79,000 people. There have been 71 deaths in prison where people either tested positive for Covid-19 or it was thought to be a contributary factor in their death.

The prison population is much younger than the general population and is predominantly male. After accounting for these differences, we found that case rates in prison have been consistently higher than those seen in the general population – despite an extended lockdown across the prison estate. Up to the end of December there were 75 cases per 1,000 population in prison, compared to 46 cases per 1,000 in England and Wales overall.

Rates have remained higher in prisons than in the general population over the last six months, which reflects the challenges of managing Covid-19 in a prison setting. People in prison live in close proximity, many in overcrowded conditions, which makes it more difficult to stop cases spreading.  The potential impact of Covid-19 in prisons has been a concern since the start of the pandemic and fears that it would overrun prisons led to a strict lockdown being imposed.

Much like in the wider population, testing rates in prison have changed over time. In July a 12-week testing programme was started in 28 prisons to test all prisoners, meaning those without symptoms would be captured in testing numbers. The Ministry of Justice also reports that new receptions to prison are also now tested. The Ministry of Justice has not as yet reported positivity data to enable direct comparisons of positivity rates between prison and the community.

While it is acknowledged that the lockdown imposes a heavy toll on prisoners’ mental health, lockdown in prisons is credited with saving lives – and as the main reason why total case numbers, even including the recent rise, are relatively small compared to what was predicted. That case numbers are well below early estimates which warned of numbers exceeding 77,000 is of course a good thing, but an attitude of ‘it could have been much worse’ disregards the relative risks people are facing.

Although the potential risks facing people in prison were acknowledged in the pandemic response planning, compassionate release on temporary licence for prisoners deemed to be at high risk (including the ‘extremely vulnerable’) and pregnant women was granted to just 54 people.

As we grapple with a new year and a third national lockdown, the people in prison we would consider in need of greater protection if they lived in the community must be adequately protected. 


About this data

Monthly prisons Covid-19 statistics for July to December are released by HM Prison and Probation Service. We chose July as the starting point for comparison to reflect the summer months leading into Wave 2. Figures for England and Wales have been combined. Monthly figures use the closest possible date to ensure full-month coverage with any differences reflecting reporting differences. From October, England figures are reported from the Public Health England National flu and COVID-19 surveillance reports combined with data up to week 27. A small number of England and Wales cases have been excluded where no age or sex information is available to assign age-sex rates. England and Wales population estimates used to determine rates per 1,000 are mid-2019. Under 29s in England and Wales overall includes cases from age 10-29 years. In prison, under 29s covers age 15–29 years. The difference between case rates between prisons and England and Wales is statistically significant for all months aside from September. The prison figures for December are provisional.