British prisons are Petri dishes for this pandemic; without immediate action it’s the death penalty by any other name

Carl Cattermole

This past Tory decade has left public services looking like a bicycle locked up too long in East London: valuable parts stolen, everything else rusted. And if the service still has two wheels then I guarantee it doesn’t have the suspension to cope with bumps… and… COVID-19 isn’t a bump, it’s an assault course.

Prisons are Petri dishes for this pandemic. Overcrowded, understaffed, completely filthy, full of vulnerable individuals without the agency to self isolate. Telephones shared by hundreds while soap is no longer given out as standard: personal hygiene is now a privilege.

The risk of unrest is sky high, but more importantly, a failure to take immediate robust action begins to look like the death penalty by any other name.


COVID-19 has cancelled all major sporting events. Nonetheless everyone’s on roids, got their boots on, sensing an open goal.

FC Extinction Rebellion are celebrating ‘the downfall of the airline industry’. Anarchist United are setting up very effective mutual aid groups and issuing communiques about ‘the start of the revolution’. Momentum Rovers are hammering their Facebook with Boris damnation (true story) and ‘what Corbyn woulda done’. I don’t watch UKIP or EDL, but I’m sure they’re using COVID-19 to blanket demonise those without a gammon hue.

And it’s not just Politics – North Americans are buying guns like never before, elderly people have deluged the Law Society with wills, devout free marketeer billionaires (including Richard ‘I sued the NHS’ Branson) are now requesting socialist-style state funding for their corporations.

Right now, even the pitch has feverish symptoms, but let’s see who’s got the most points when the season comes to a close.

It will likely be the rugger-buggers (*slang for rugby boys*) who end up trumping the lot. Born with a spoon in their mouth and educated to exploit opportunities since private nursery school, elbowing weaker kids in the ribs is simply second nature.

However, I won’t labour the point of ‘shit things Tories will be poised to do to Braindead Britain (bogroll hoarders, broom pushers and Brexiteers) in the wake of this crisis’ and ‘how Murdoch will turn ineptitude chalk into heroic leadership cheese’. That all seems a bit obvious. Personally, my attention is drawn to the pitch these political teams play upon: namely ‘society’. The traction between the two being what is known as the ‘social contract’. I wonder if a pandemic could shatter the latter and put it up for radical renegotiation…

The ‘social contract’ is the deal struck between state and individual whereby state controls aspects of our lives and in return we get basic rights and maintenance of social order, etc.

Hobbes (one of the theory’s major proponents) argued that people are willing to cede taxes and freedoms to government because without paternalism our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

But – MAJOR NEWSFLASH – withstanding an elite that ‘live their best life’, the vast majority of people have slowly seen capitalism nibble away at the supposed benefits of this deal. We are increasingly solitary because of over-work. We are poor because of shit wages. Some are nasty because, well, Twitter. Brutish because, well, Stella. And our lives are shortening because the NHS has been stripped to it’s skeleton (life expectancy is decreasing, if you didn’t already know).

I think that even the most subservient citizen secretly suspects the deal is lose-lose, but the government behaves just like an abusive spouse. We’ve been with it for years. We occasionally find suspicious hairs. But just when we’ve had enough it offers us a box of chocolates (read: a government hand out), or it threatens us that it’ll keep the kids (read: it will send us to prison).

Tune into BBC Radio 4 and you’ll constantly hear an RP-MP (received pronounciation Member of Parliament) say “we need to regain people’s trust in politics”. They trace our distrust back to the expenses scandal where, for example, one Tory spent public funds to clean the moat that encircles his country mansion. But – people – the moat is a scapegoat, the reality is much more radical: the western world’s distrust of politics is because we give way too much for what we get: we know they’re hoodwinking us.

Everyone who did rather well from ‘the world as it was’ will be desperate for COVID-19 to end ASAP.  NOT because it will save people’s lives (conservative commentators have openly stated that it’s economically prudent to let old people die) but because there’s a risk to the powerful that if we break from their solitary, poor, nasty and brutish regime for a month or two, we may well demand to renegotiate.

Similar things have happened very recently in places that are a touch less gullible. French ruling classes tried to suppress les gillet jaunes (the ‘yellow vests’) with batons and tear gas but then retreated, realising they had to cede to many of the working class’ demands.

Unfortunately, this little island has sniffed a massive line of tabloids and social media and passed out on the sofa. Cummings and Johnson are taking full advantage, drawing penises on our foreheads. A sustained pandemic could well be the bucket of cold water everyone’s been needing to look sharpish and get on the dance floor.

Fingers crossed, the UK MO of
“Keep Calm
And
Let Elites
Take The Piss
Out Of Your Life”
might be coming to a well overdue end.

Thing is, they full well know that the vast majority will accept a terrible deal so long as we have simple stability: a roof over our heads, family and food. We’re unwilling to cross to a better land if a rough sea stands in our way.


Prisoners, however, are aboard a giant concrete cruise ship, half way across that ocean already.

Prison is a concentrated example of many of the issues I’ve just touched upon.

Compared to the general outside world it’s much more solitary (I did nearly a year locked up alone). Much more poor. Much more nasty. Much more brutish. And short too – every year spent in prison takes two years from your life expectancy.

Incarcerated people maybe have the weakest social contract of any societal subgroup. Even before imprisonment they tend not to taste the fruits of the system and hence emerge ahead of the anti-authoritarian curve. Then they are stripped of vote, currency, their own clothes and freedom. Then upon release they are left with a diminished societal standing and social ability. Talk about a social contract, they cant get a rental contract, a phone contract or a work contract!

Add to the recipe that British prisons now resemble wasteland warehouses: the most recent government report on health in prisons found unsafe and unsanitary conditions across the estate. They are filthy, de-staffed, totally overcrowded, with disastrous healthcare at the best of times. Soap isn’t even given out in many prisons: cleanliness is now a privilege.

Then add COVID-19. Social visits are expected to be banned imminently. There will be further cuts to staffing which means less time out of cells, less access to washing machines, showers and telephones. This means a decrease of familial support at a time of visceral fear. When prisoners do have access to phones, they are generally shared by hundreds of prisoners without being sanitised between uses. In most jails there is no sanitiser whatsoever. Most prisoners share cells and some jails have mass dormitories. Crucially there is a complete lack of agency to self isolate if you are vulnerable.

Simply stated: prisons are Petri dishes for this pandemic.

Firstly, it could be the spark in the grain silo as far as unrest: it has already kicked off in Italy and Brazil, and it will undoubtedly reach breaking point in more prison systems over the coming weeks.

But more importantly the combination of imprisonment obsession, followed by de-funding and then governmental mismanagement of COVID-19 means that any life lost within these insitutions will be the death penalty by any other name.

As it stands, Epidemiologists at the University of London have predicted approximately eight hundred deaths.

I’m sure the Mail and the Express comment sections are having a carnival at the thought. DEAD PRISONERS – RESULT! But for those of us with less nasty souls, let me just bring you up to speed with who’s lives are at stake: name any marginalised group in Britain and they are over-represented in the prison system: BME, trans, working class, deaf, disabled or poor (many prisoners intersect more than one of these groups).

And – I don’t want to fall into the trap of creating a reductive league of crimes but let’s not forget the petty things that many of us are locked up for. Remand (imprisonment before conviction) for minor crimes, stealing to fund addictions, painting graffiti, failing to pay TV licenses (40% of women are currently in jail for this alone), crimes that result from curable traumas if only there was funding, choosing illegitimate employment because many are incompatible with employers demands I.E. caucasian ethnicity or to be uniformed and subservient.

Once again the prison system proves to be a glaring exception to mainstream conscience: journalists not allowed to enter, stories covered up, statistics manipulated, mental and physical health proactively destabilised, petty punishments prioritised over protection of life, pandemic disaster allowed to spread free reign.

MoJ is a despotic regime and – as I said in Prison A Survival Guide – if British prisons were a country with a resource worth stealing, the UK would probably invade them on a civilising conquest.


This is where we currently stand: prisoners are confirmed infected at HMP Manchester (nee Strangeways) and HMP Kilmarnock, staff members have been infected at HMP Highdown (Surrey), HMP Usk (Monmouthshire) and HMP Whitemoor (Cambridgeshire). HMP Berwyn (a ‘mega jail’ in the Welsh Valleys) has been hit particularly hard: 22 prisoners are showing symptoms and 75 members of staff are off sick or isolating.

While the Prisons Minister has self isolated and the Justice Minister has canceled his constituency surgery as a precaution, they have decreed that ¾ of Crown Court trials and imprisonment are to continue unabated. As they are able to avoid it, those under their ‘care’ should be able to too. The mass spread of this pandemic in the ‘criminal’ ‘justice’ ‘system’ is fully avoidable: we must act now.

All prisoners who do not pose harm (prisons’ methods of judging this is two dimensional and discriminatory so should be taken with a kilo of salt) to individuals must be freed, the remaining few must be held in properly sanitised and healthy environments. This should be prioritised for those serving minor sentences, those locked up for breach of license, and the most vulnerable (pensioners, pregnant women and those with immune deficiencies). Prisoner phone calls must be made free (they’re currently an exorbitant BT monopoly rip off) so people can keep in contact with loved ones at a time of extreme anxiety.

I bet Ministry of Justice are scrambling to keep COVID-19 out of prisons. Like I said before, NOT because they want to save lives, but because this virus gives the most tepid layperson an insight into this society’s treatment of poor and criminalised people.

This is nightmare material for the MoJ: if they were to take the action that this situation necessitates, it would prove that their mass incarceration project is a complete waste of public funds and human life.

Capitalist avarice has walked us into fully avoidable peril (the Grenfell disaster, to name one recent example) time and time again. Like all existential threats generated by capitalism, this nature-borne threat overly affects disadvantaged people. However, it is significantly less discriminate in its nature and thus has more potential to A) be given attention by the wankers-that-be, B) snap the wider population out of it’s abusive relationship with those wankers.

If COVID-19 leaves the scene and we return to growth-obsessive ‘economophilia’, my points still stand: without enough blubber for social provisions to ride long winters the social contract rapidly looks jeopardised. And… that prison is an expensive cog of capitalism that doesn’t serve society, it permits one group (the economically victorious) to run rife, at the expense of another’s incarcerated life.

I was going to end on the note of saying ‘stop being wusses about self isolation! I did a year of 23 hour solitary bang up, and loads of people are doing weeks/months/years down the block!’. However, I wont be so blokeish, I guess it is really hard for people to cope with.

I just hope people will use their temporary experience of isolation to understand that the only time it should be used is to stem a deadly pandemic, it should not to be handed out willy nilly for falling the wrong side of a deeply discriminatory legal system.

So, people, have a moan, but make sure you transfer your learnings from this stint into maximum solidarity once it’s over, alright…?

And… if you’re really not coping with being locked up in your own house then read my book Prison A Survival Guide – a surprising amount of the info is transferable. You could even read it on the toilet and use the pages you’ve just read to wipe your arse.

Carl Cattermole

Photos provided by the author.