‘This place is a death trap’: inside HMPs during COVID-19 

Content warnings: state violence, medical abuse and neglect, self-harm and suicide 

The Ministry of Justice’s lack of response to COVID-19 is nothing short of genocidal. So far, there have been twelve recorded deaths of incarcerated people in HMP. Inadequate hygiene plus solitary confinement plus medical abuse and neglect have already proven lethal, and worse is still to come as COVID is reported in over fifty percent of prisons, as well as across immigration detention centres (otherwise known as prisons).

Whilst nations around the world are releasing thousands, the UK MoJ searches for temporary prisons to keep people locked up whilst nodding to social distancing protocols. They have ummed and ahhed and then re-packed pre-existing early release programs: promised early release for 4000 ‘low risk’ people, as discerned by racialised risk indicators that find black people and other people of colour to pose a greater risk to the population.

The death penalty was officially abolished in the U.K. in 1969, yet definite and indefinite sentences alike are being converted to death sentences. It’s genocidal violence against the working class, people of colour and disabled people.

Lisa and Elliott who run the @bluebaglife Instagram and Twitter accounts have been overwhelmed with phone calls from those inside and their loved ones with updates on the realities of prison during the Corona pandemic. Read their stories and then do something about it. Suggestions at the end of this text.

Someone incarcerated in HMP Coldingley reported: “The main concern is the extremely poor sanitation system. This jail is not good at the best of times but with what is going on in the world right now it seems to have dropped dramatically. We are just being left locked up in our cells for 24 hours. Some of the prisoners are unable to hold their gut and just go to the toilet in their cell (on the potties handed out or into a bag) with no facility to wash their hands after. And then when we do get let out to use the bathroom we have to jump into a queue to use all the same toilets, bearing in mind there are 90 odd prisoners all using this same facility. The toilets become blocked, which causes agitation amongst  those that have been waiting and decided not to go to the toilet in their cells.”

Partner of someone who was inside HMP Pentonville, until a few days ago (when he was released on bail):  “He was segregated due to suspected Corona Virus and transferred to the quarantine wing. He asked for his inhaler daily. He told officers and nurses daily that he was struggling for breath. He was never seen by the doctor…I made a complaint through NHS England and it was escalated… some prison officers were angry that id complained, then treated him more harshly. My numbers were instantly blocked from his calling list. Then all his numbers were blocked… My partner asked an officer why he would treat someone this way? “Because I can”, he replied. He was also told to “stop pressing the buzzer, it’s not a f***king hotel!”. As he struggled to take in air after days of being left alone with suspected corona and no inhaler…without contact his mental health grew worse… he attempted to hang himself…”.

In HMP Erlestoke, “They’ve got prison officers going into cells spinning (searching), going into people’s self-distancing space, touching all their sides and surfaces with the same gloves, or bare hands, after they’ve just spun first man’s cell on the same wing, or previous wing. Right now I am using old socks and my own toilet cleaner to clean my own cell. There are 64 prisoners on the wing, sharing one washing machine and one dryer. There’s one cold tap and two hot taps. I’ve never seen them get cleaned. The sink is filthy. Everyone uses them…This is taking its toll on certain prisoners. Prisoners here are really struggling with drug abuse and mental health cos they’ve been locked in their cells for so long – for 23 hours every day. They’re finding it really hard, self-harming every day, cutting themselves up”.



Freedom is currently collecting and publishing reports on COVID-19 and the situation in prisons, detention centres and other institutions states use to punish and restrict people Worldwide. If you wish to contribute or have stories you think should see the light of day, please get in touch: [email protected] If needed, your anonymity will be protected and alternative forms of contact can be arranged.

Photo: Grammaticus Bramlington, CC BY 2.0