On Monday, UK Government Ministers and the Ministry of Justice announced and applauded news that prisoners in England and Wales are making PPE during lockdown.
Scrubs, masks, goggles, and visors – focal points of daily questions in press briefings and Parliament.
PPE made in HMP costs around a third of the usual commercial rate. Prisoners who manufacture it are paid a meagre weekly wage of £12.50.
Helping health and care workers is admirable, but when governments find good news stories in prisons in the midst of crisis, we should ask questions.
Criminologists and other connoisseurs of old chestnuts like this are prone to ask why? Who benefits? What else might it obscure, bury or distract from? Prisoners might be helping others, but is enough being done to help them?
Concerning news has since emerged daily this week about the complex realities of prisons in a time of crisis.
On Tuesday, a report from Public Health England that numbers of prisoners infected with COVID-19 may be six times higher than published figures.
On Thursday, a Council of Europe anti-torture committee report on violence, overcrowding and ‘deep crisis’ in men’s prisons in England.
Followed by statistics report that self harm in prisons in England and Wales is at record high levels. A finding from before the pandemic, before gym access and prison visits stopped, before the distressing prospect of months of lockdown in cells and restricted regimes.
The news of prisons this week is writ large with pressure and paradox. Insider accounts make for harrowing reading. Prison work and training activities have stopped across the prison estate, making PPE manufacturing an exception to the rule.
UK Government action on some coronavirus-related measures – such as ‘compartmentalising’ strategies and delivery of hundreds or thousands of modified shipping containers as temporary cells – appear to be done at pace. ‘Temporary’ options rarely prove to be that in prisons.
Their inaction on other key measures – such as emergency prisoner release – feels achingly slow. Eminent public health experts, the World Health Organisation, human rights groups, academics, charities and trade unions have called for reducing risk by reducing prison numbers by the thousands. What it doesn’t reduce is risk aversion or fear of what voters will think.
Politicians and prison systems can pivot when they want to and prevaricate when they don’t.
The COVID-19 pandemic might be new and unprecedented, but putting prisoners to work in times of crisis and disaster is not.
Around the world, governments under mounting pressure to get on with their jobs and do something have put prisoners to work, with accompanying press releases. Come bushfire hell or flood high-water, critical shortages of PPE or even the prospect of post-Brexit labour shortages, some of the most marginalised people can be mobilised as surplus labour.
Amid a global shortage, prisoners are also making PPE and hand sanitiser in India, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, and the United States. Those on some production lines say they don’t get to use the face masks or hand sanitiser, only make it, raising concerns of prisons as incubators of coronavirus, in more confined spaces than cruise ships or care homes.
Prison work is inherently contested, in crises or otherwise. Prison work can be exploitative. It can be interesting and productive. Reasonable questions should be asked about the conditions and circumstances in which it occurs.
If it is to be justified, research emphasises the importance of prison work that prioritises safety, rights and dignity, positive relationships, fairness, meaningful purpose and skills.
Commodities (masks, scrubs, visors) for key workers are not more important than the health and care of those who make them. Imprisoned lives matter, and more action is urgently needed.
In some ways, the UK Government are right. We should be proud and thank those who live and work in prisons for making much-needed PPE in very difficult circumstances. But, let’s recognise their efforts and act in their interests without decorating prisons in silver linings.
Much like clapping for key workers, it is not enough to thank them. It is far more important to pay them fairly, keep them safe and sane, and ensure they all live to see the end of this crisis. That is why – they are why – we should ask questions and hold governments to account.
By Hannah Graham a criminologist and academic at the University of Stirling. Twitter: @DrHannahGraham