Prison in the time of COVID-19
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Louise Heath
The government must urgently step up the release of low-risk prisoners to tackle the huge threat of COVID-19 to prisoners, staff and the wider population.
The COVID-19 infection is now known to be in at least half of our prisons. According to the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) daily COVID-19 stakeholder updates, as of 5 pm on 22 April 2020, 300 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 across 69 prisons, 237 prison staff had also tested positive for the virus across 57 prisons, as well as 10 prisoner escort and custody services staff. It was reported to the Justice Committee on 14 April 2020 that 13 prisoners and three prison officers had died.
On 26 March 2020, the Prison Governors Association called for a substantial number of prisoners to be released in response to the pandemic: ‘Government must look at early release schemes at speed for lower risk offenders’ as this ‘will also help delay the spread of the virus through prisons, so from a health perspective there is an imperative.’
A report by Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust, two leading penal reform charities in the UK. The report outlines the up-to-date evidence concerning the nature, spread and transmission of COVID-19 as it applies to prisons. Professor Coker states that the risk of exposure to the virus for prisoners and staff is ‘far, far greater’ than the risk to individuals in the wider community. His report also outlines how, as large shared spaces, prisons act as ‘epidemiological pumps’ that can drive the spread of disease among the wider community. It also concludes that social distancing and personal infection control measures are ‘almost impossible’ in prisons and recommends that authorities ‘should consider alternative options to incarceration where feasible’.
Through announcements on 31 March 2020 and 4 April 2020, alongside various other public statements, the MoJ has acknowledged the need to reduce the number of people in prison at this time. Yet, as of 14 April 2020, just 18 people had been released under the schemes (that is 0.02 per cent of the prison population). The current prison population is some 81,500. At the end of March 2019, almost 70 per cent of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded (84 of the 121 prisons), with nearly 18,700 people held in overcrowded accommodation.
For that reason, on 17 April 2020, the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust instructed LAG authors Simon Creighton and Hamish Arnott, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, to send a formal letter before claim to the justice secretary on the basis that ‘the rate of releases has been too slow and too limited to make any substantial difference to the prison population and the plans as we understand them are incapable of achieving what the secretary of state has publicly acknowledged is required’ and are therefore unlawful.
Great Britain is out of step with international advice and practice. Other countries have released substantial numbers of prisoners: Northern Ireland has released around 200 prisoners, France has released almost 10,000 in the last month and 3,500 prisoners are being released in California alone. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the World Health Organisation and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have all advocated for the release of people from prison where that can be done safely.

About the author(s)

Description: Laura Janes - author
Dr Laura Janes is the chair of LAG. She is legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform with oversight of their legal service for people under...