ONLY one prisoner has died at Erlestoke Prison in Wiltshire during a period when jails across the UK were being ravaged by hundreds of positive cases during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michael Wilkes, 74, died on January 29 2020 from natural causes. He suffered a hypoxic brain injury after banging his head during a heart attack at HMP Erlestoke.

Mr Wilkes was serving six years and eight months for attempted murder and had been in prison since 2016.

He transferred to HMP Erlestoke on April 4 2017 when he had no significant pre-existing medical conditions.

A report into his death by Sue McAllister, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, found that his clinical care was not equivalent to that he could have expected to receive in the community.

She said: “It is a matter of serious concern that the prison healthcare team missed crucial opportunities to identify and treat his heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, which might have prevented his death.

“Poor judgement and inadequate training meant that there was a significant delay in Mr Wilkes receiving emergency medical treatment from paramedics after his collapse.

"Again, an effective emergency response might have prevented Mr Wilkes’ death.”

Her annual report for 2020/21, showed that her department started 425 investigations into deaths in the year, an increase of 37 per cent compared to the previous year.

Of those, 298 were classed as natural cause deaths and 132 of those were related to Covid-19.

Her report notes: “Deaths related to Covid-19 occurred in two waves.

"In the first wave, between March 18 2020 and May 27 2020, we were notified of and started 26 Covid-19 related fatal incident investigations.

“In the second wave, between October 8 2020 and March 31 2021, we were notified of and started 110 Covid-19 related fatal incident investigations. After this the deaths fell to very low numbers.”

In February last year, HMP Erlestoke was hit by a Covid-19 outbreak, with nearly 80 prisoners and staff affected by the deadly coronavirus at the Category C men's prison.

But PPO investigations found that not all the prisoners who died of Covid-19 contracted the virus in prison. Some appear to have contracted it in hospital, where they had been inpatients for some time for another reason. In some cases, it was impossible to say where the prisoner was likely to have contracted the virus.

“Where it appears that prisoners have contracted the virus in prison, it is seldom possible to say how this has happened, although we know that HM Inspectorate of Prisons has sometimes found that prison staff have not always observed social distancing themselves or enforced it among prisoners,” the PPO's report states.

In some cases, though, prisoners chose not to follow advice to shield. The report acknowledges the care and compassion prisoners and family members have received from prison and healthcare staff, though some cases showed care or procedures could be improved.

In 2020-21 there were 85 self-inflicted deaths, one more than in 2019/20. The report noted: “At the beginning of the pandemic, many observers thought there might be an increase in self-inflicted deaths as prisoners struggled to cope with the very restricted Covid-19 regime and the long periods locked in their cells.

“This did not happen initially, and, in fact, self-inflicted deaths dropped to unprecedentedly low levels in September 2020 and October 2020.

"However, the number of self-inflicted deaths began to rise in November 2020 and remained high for the last four months of 2020/21.”

One case was notified to the PPO in June 2020, but the date of death was April 2020.

There was evidence of failings seen in previous years, particularly relating to failures to assess risk and vulnerability correctly in prisoners’ early days in prison. The impact of the lack of contact with staff during Covid-19 was also evident.

The PPO received 4,010 complaints in 2020-21, 14 per cent fewer than in the previous year. As in other years, the largest single group of complaints related to property.

The PPO said: “We had expected that with far fewer transfers between prisons and less opportunity for prisoners to move around and mix with others within establishments, we would see proportionally fewer complaints about property.

“However, property remained the issue on which we completed more complaints than any other, and our uphold rate (where we find in favour of the complainant) was also higher than most other complaint categories.”

Overall, Sue McAllister said: “We maintained our focus on the impact of our work. This remains a key challenge for us as repeat failings, and the associated need to make the same recommendations in response to what we find, continue to frustrate our work.

“Of course, there are also cases where our findings and recommendations result in change for the better.

"For example, we were pleased to learn that, following our criticism of the care for people with dementia in one prison, a specialist dementia care nurse had been employed.

“We continued to work with a wide range of stakeholders and academic partners to consider how our reports could have more impact.

"We also had conversations with the services in remit and our sponsors in the Ministry of Justice about how the services could deliver the changes we all agree are needed to make prisons safer and more decent.”