The vaccination of some prisoners in the UK has begun this week, although the proposed vaccination process has raised concerns.
Vaccinations in prisons currently mirror vaccinations in the UK as a whole, with prisoners who are in high-risk groups, such as the over 80s and the clinically vulnerable, being offered the vaccine first.
However, there are growing calls for all prisoners, of which there are 79,000 in the UK, and those who work in prisons to be prioritised in the next round of vaccinations.
The recent increase in deaths from Covid-19 in prisons has highlighted the susceptibility of prisons to outbreaks of the virus.
Deaths as a result of the virus in prisons in England and Wales have risen by 50% in just one month, and shadow justice secretary David Lammy has called this situation a “public health crisis ”.
Lammy has pointed out that outbreaks of the virus in prisons can also overwhelm local hospitals and have a huge impact on local communities.
Several prisons have experienced significant outbreaks, with more than 100 staff at Cardiff Prison having to self-isolate as a result of an outbreak in November.
The situation in prisons has led Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana to urge Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi to consider prioritising prisoners and those who work in prisons for the Covid-19 vaccine.
In a recent question to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Sultana identified prisons as a “high risk setting for transmission” of Covid-19 and argued that vaccinating prisoners would be “good for public health and a humane approach to a completely disenfranchised population. ”
Sultana’s suggestion has been echoed by experts on the prison system. The chair of the government’s independent panel on deaths in custody, Juliet Lyon, has identified prisons as significant breeding grounds for the virus, as a result of overcrowding, poor ventilation and low levels of staffing.
In a letter to Zahawi, Lyon made the case for prisoners and prison staff to be considered priority groups for the vaccine, in order to “protect against infection and prevent further spread of the disease within establishments and out into the community.”
Experts have also pointed to the benefits that the vaccination of this specific population would bring to their physical and mental health.
In an interview with Sky News, Lyon emphasised the fact that the rapid vaccination of prisoners would enable them to access vital services.
She pointed out that those in prisons have a statistically higher prevalence of underlying physical and mental health conditions, and with a vaccine would be able to access services such as substance abuse and mental health support, as well as visits from their families and friends.
The implementation of such a policy may encounter opposition. The MP for Stockton South, Matt Vickers, for example, tweeted that this policy would “put criminals ahead of their victims.”
Plans to vaccinate prisoners ahead of other citizens in Colorado, U.S., were significantly amended following a huge public backlash.
However, a petition in the UK to prioritise prison staff for the Covid-19 vaccine has so far gained over 10,000 signatures, although it has yet to receive a response from the government.
Specific information about those who will be included in the next round of vaccinations has not yet been released, and there have been no indications that the government is currently considering prioritising vaccinations for prisoners or prison workers.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told The Student:
“Prisoners are being vaccinated at the same time as the general public and in line with the priority groups set out by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.”