Prisoners and prison staff at Her Majesty’s Prison Edinburgh in Scotland, or Saughton Prison, faced a serious outbreak of COVID-19 at a time when inmates were explicitly discouraged from requesting COVID tests, according to diplomat-turned whistleblower Craig Murray.
“There was a major COVID outbreak in the prison in the last 6 weeks of my incarceration,” Murray recalled. While COVID was present in the prison throughout his stay there, Murray said that between October 20 and November 20, “there were more than 200 positive tests for COVID in the jail.”
“That’s 200 out of a population of 900,” he added, emphasizing that all of these prisoners would have been symptomatic. (Prisoners who weren’t symptomatic were not tested.)
While the Scottish government urged the entire population to test themselves with lateral flow tests more than twice a week, whether they had symptoms or not, it was difficult for prisoners to get a test.
On December 1, one day after his release from prison, Murray spoke in an exclusive interview to The Dissenter. He was the first journalist to be imprisoned for media contempt of court in Scotland in over 70 years, according to his defense team.
His conviction stemmed from his coverage of the sex assault trial of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Murray, a longtime supporter of Scottish independence, appears to have fallen foul of a split within the Scottish National Party (SNP) over how strongly the administration of the current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for independence.
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads through Scotland and the wider United Kingdom, and authorities claim they are taking action to prevent outbreaks, Murray’s account of his time in prison once again focuses attention on a vulnerable prison population often neglected during the pandemic.
“When people started going down like flies all around me, I applied for a COVID test, which I did orally. I didn’t get a response so I put in the application in writing. Two weeks after that I became unwell and had some symptoms, largely upset stomach symptoms. And at that stage, because I was ill they gave me a COVID test, but in general, prisoners who didn’t have symptoms weren’t tested.”
Prisoners in the cells on each side of Murray became ill with COVID, though the cells themselves are not “hermetically sealed” and the window, which is separated by bars, cannot open to let in fresh air.
Murray said staff discouraged prisoners, even the symptomatic ones, from asking to be tested in an environment Murray described as “filthy” with rats scurrying around cells.
One prisoner Murray spoke to had symptoms, including a cough, tight chest, and difficulty breathing. They asked for a COVID test from a nurse. “The nurse had said to him, are you sure you want a COVID test? Because if you’re positive you’ll be banged up basically in solitary confinement for three weeks. So, are you sure you want one?”
Murray believes the combination of failing to mass test prisoners whilst also discouraging prisoners from getting tested, meant that authorities were in effect falsifying the COVID-19 figures within Saughton.
The Dissenter interviewed Murray at his office in his family home, which is situated within a quiet suburb of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh.
His face was freshly smooth after his wife Nadira took him for a hot Turkish shave only a couple hours earlier, removing a beard which grew considerably during his incarceration.
“It’s a very unpleasant experience,” Murray stated in a manner that was relaxed but also introspective. “I was confined in a cell, which was 12 feet by 8 feet. I was confined in that for a minimum of 22 hours a day. For much of the period of 23 hours a day, with very little association with other prisoners,” he said.
He was “surrounded by the noise and antagonisms of a jail, which contains a lot of… percentage of the population who are violent or problematic in other ways. They may be suffering from drug addiction and withdrawal for example, but there’s an awful lot of noise clatter and apparent hostility in the background, sounds you hear as you’re locked in your cell.”
Murray, who is 62 years old and has heart and lung conditions that make him “highly vulnerable” to COVID-19, found he was surrounded by people catching the virus and falling ill. He considers it quite extraordinary that he was left in such a situation and did not contract the virus.
“It led me to have seriously paranoid thoughts whether they were attempting to kill me. It really was and is to me incredible that you would leave a highly vulnerable person deliberately exposed to COVID in that way,” Murray shared.
Campaign organizations and health experts in the U.K. have made repeated calls over the past two years urging that the rights of prisoners be protected during the pandemic; that they have the same healthcare access as the public and measures be taken to avoid prison outbreaks.
In May 2020, the heads of multiple United Nations organizations, as well as the head of the World Health Organization, signed a statement urging political leaders to “consider limiting the deprivation of liberty” to a measure of “last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures,” including release mechanisms for those “at particular risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety.”
The Scottish government released nonviolent prisoners early in order to reduce the risk of COVID outbreaks but ended that policy shortly before Murray would have benefited from it. It is unclear as to why the policy was terminated.
As Murray recounted, the majority of prison staff in his wing caught COVID and took time off work sick. Some of them were “quite seriously” ill.
“One of them was off for approximately six weeks, and when he came back he had lost a huge amount of weight, and he had trouble speaking. His voice was just totally different. He plainly had been very ill indeed.”
“Prison staff did their very best in very difficult circumstances”, Murray contended, “displaying extraordinary courage” as they took meals into each cell and dirty dishes out every day with only very rudimentary personal protective equipment (PPE).
But staff were “spreaders of the illness as they went around from cell-to-cell administering to the prisoners who were locked in.”
*Read the rest of this report at The Dissenter.