Journal

COVID-19: The prison crisis

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Aspiring barrister Claudia-Lauren Williams questions why the government has been so slow to implement plans for prisoner release

It is not surprising that prisons are a hotspot for the spread of viruses; overcrowded and unsanitary conditions make for a deadly concoction.

Even before the pandemic took hold of the UK, the prison population in England and Wales, under the Ministry of Justice’s definition, exceeded the limit of inmates that allows for “safety and decency” by nearly 6,000 men and women.

Prisons lack sufficient resources and cell space to manage dangerous, highly contagious viruses such as COVID-19, particularly as adequate sanitation has long been an issue. Prison health facilities simply do not have the capacity to treat a large number of inmates at any one time. The knock-on effect is that inmates would then require treatment from the NHS at local hospitals, putting a huge strain on resources and treatment available to the public.

In some prisons, such as Durham HMP, overcrowding has made social distancing and single cell occupancy a practical impossibility with approximately 100 new inmates arriving per week. Shocking revelations have recently come to light that inmates displaying flu-like symptoms are being placed in cells with inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, known as “cohorting”. It has also been reported that prisoners are being forced to spend 23 hours a day in their cells to combat the outbreak. These practices arguably breach the duty of care the government has for the health of those incarcerated and potentially pose a very serious breach of human rights — they must not be allowed to continue.

The government’s pledge

On 4 April the Ministry of Justice announced plans to release early on licence up to 4,000 inmates who pass a risk assessment and were due for release within two months. On 27 April the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, announced only 33 prisoners had been released, telling the Commons that those released included pregnant prisoners and women in mother and baby units.

Stagnation of the widespread release of inmates followed an “administrative error” that saw the mistaken release of six low-risk men. Despite the scheme having since resumed many are now calling into question whether a total halt in the early release scheme was necessary given the implications of a temporary cessation at this time. Administrative errors aside, two charities, The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust have issued a letter before claim for judicial review against the Lord Chancellor for the delays, claiming the action has been so slow that it renders it unlawful.

In addition, Public Health England has warned that the government’s pledge to release thousands through early release will not be enough and 15,000 prisoners should be released to prevent the complete overrun of local hospitals.

It is clear that taken at its highest and swiftly implemented, the government’s pledge for release would still likely fall short of action capable of mitigating the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons, risking thousands of lives.

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Action

It will not be long before we can establish the full extent of the damage these delays have caused, but the risk to the health of inmates, prison staff and the general public is growing by the second.

Many European countries have responded with expedition and force to tackle the COVID-19 prison crisis, Austria (and parts of Germany), for example, is deferring prison sentences shorter than three years for non-dangerous offenders. France has reduced its prison population by 10,000 within the last month and Italy by 6,000 in the last 6 weeks.

Why is it that the government of England and Wales has been so slow to implement fairly modest plans for release? How many lives could have been spared? Once the pandemic passes these are just some of the questions that warrant lengthy explanation.

The release of all low-risk non-violent offenders serving short sentences or nearing the end of their sentences would go far in allowing prisons to successfully implement social distancing, but the window is rapidly closing. Low-risk offenders serving short sentences exacerbate overcrowding, further stretch resources whilst posing minimal risk to the public and should be released as a matter of urgency.

After COVID-19

Beyond immediacy and in the not so distant future we should not forget to question why these low-risk, non-violent offenders receiving short sentences were in prison to begin with. Prison should be a last resort; short sentences for non-violent individuals, not long enough to effectively rehabilitate and not in place to protect the public lack a beneficiary. A shift in focus is needed from deterrence to rehabilitation in the passing of sentences.

It is easy to pass a prison sentence, it’s easy to ignore the root causes of offending but the justice system should no longer shy away from facilitating effective rehabilitation yielding the all-important by-product of a reduced prison population.

Prisons that are not overcrowded are irrefutably better managed; access to educational or rehabilitative courses is increased, closer staff to inmate relationships are made and trust is built. These features all contribute to increasing rates of rehabilitation, reducing the likelihood of reoffending — the benefits are cyclical and something we should no doubt strive towards moving forward.

Claudia-Lauren Williams is an aspiring barrister. She completed the BPTC at BPP University Law School, and will be heading to the University of Cambridge from October to undertake a masters in criminology.

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24 Comments

David

The government has made a right mess of everything. To be expected. Tory incompetence is reaching new highs as each day passes. Shameful. Embarrassing that so many people buy in to their nonsense.

David (but not an idiot)

CASE CLOSED!

Absolutely no further enquires needed, this is certainly not a multi-faceted issue which involves both private enterprise and public institutions and, further, it’s definitely not a symptom of the wider failings of successive UK governments and representatives from both sides in respect to their approach to criminal offenders. No no, none of that. Couldn’t be!

RED VERSUS BLUE – SPLIT THEM IN TWO!

Peter fernando

For some reason you have more dislikes than likes. So,is it: 1. government is competent or 2. People like the Tories or 3 both.

Anonymous

If only the government had stopped allowing prison to be a university of crime by locking them all up in solitary confinement. Then covid would be less of an issue. Still, my sympathy levels for criminals is somewhere between zero and f all. Don’t be a criminal, there that is the way to avoid catching diseases in prison.

Peter fernando

Spreading cv19 is ok then?

Yag

Only non-violent offenders should be released. However, knowing how incompetent the govt and prison services are, there will be paedos and terrorists roaming the streets.

Anonymous

And those that have not been dishonest. Offences of dishonesty cost the good people of Britain a fortune and right now the immoral types are trying to cash in more than ever. Leopards do not change spots.

Anonymous

Aww, diddums. Prisoners who have been locked up for our safety, as a consequence of their own actions, are now finding that the experience is a little nastier than they anticipated.

Probably shouldn’t have committed crimes in the first place, should they.

Anon.

Are women who can’t afford to pay their TV licences and subsequently given prison sentences locked up for public protection? No
Are those who steal to eat imprisoned for public protection? No
Are those with drug addiction found in possession of illegal drugs imprisoned for public protection? No

Just because individuals are in prison it does not mean they deserve to become ill. Every offence, and the circumstances leading up to that offence, are different.

Anonymous

“Are women who can’t afford to pay their TV licences and subsequently given prison sentences locked up for public protection?”

No-one is jailed for not paying a TV Licence. The maximum sentence is a fine.

Interesting how you bizarrely limit that example to women only.

“Are those who steal to eat imprisoned for public protection?”

Yes they are. Protecting basic property rights is essential to the functioning of any civilised democracy.

“Are those with drug addiction found in possession of illegal drugs imprisoned for public protection?”

Yes they are. The sorts of drugs that will actually earn you jailtime – heroin, ecstasy, LSD etc – are a blight on society that ruin countless lives each year.

So those examples were a complete fail. Why don’t you try again.

Anon.

Until very recently you could be imprisoned for not paying that fine, which disproportionately effected women, if you took the time to google it.

Property rights are one thing, but if someone steals food and are sentenced to prison, is this for the protection of the public? No, this person would not be viewed by the court as a danger to the public – a sentence of imprisonment would only be implemented to act as a deterrent, which ultimately never works – people aren’t deterred if they need to steal to eat, and the revolving door of criminality goes on.

I’m not saying these people shouldn’t face punishment, I’m saying they should receive a sentence that enables rehabilitation. People can be dealt with in different ways and imprisonment should be reserved for the most dangerous offenders, that’s who pose a risk of PHYSICAL harm to the public.

Prison is not the only option, particularly in the current climate, which is the point you’ve clearly missed.

Exasperated

Calm down dear!

Anonymous

“Until very recently you could be imprisoned for not paying that fine, which disproportionately effected women, if you took the time to google it.”

So you admit that no-one can be jailed now and thus that your example was flawed. Got it, thanks. (Oh, and suggesting that people use Google to cover for your own flawed points is a very old and tired tactic that fools no-one).

Also, it only ‘disproportionately affects women’ in the sense that more women commit the crime. It would make about as much logical sense to object to murder laws on the basis that such laws ‘disproportionately affect men.’

“Property rights are one thing, but if someone steals food and are sentenced to prison, is this for the protection of the public?”

Correct. it is. While they’re in prison, they can’t steal anything else, so the rest of us are protected from their thieving behaviour.

“I’m saying they should receive a sentence that enables rehabilitation.”

“People can be dealt with in different ways and imprisonment should be reserved for the most dangerous offenders…”

Sorry to interrupt your social justice bleating, but this is completely irrelevant to the topic under discussion. We’re talking about people already in prison – people who the courts have already determined need to be in prison in order to protect the public.

Archibald Pomp O'City

EFFECTED? I suspect you mean “affected” but who knows with you illiterate types.

Anon.

Are women who cannot afford to pay their TV licence imprisoned for public safety? No
Are those who steal to eat imprisoned for public safety? No
Are those who addiction and found in possession of illegal substances imprisoned for public safety? No

Just because an individual is in prison it does not mean they deserve to become ill. Every offence, and the circumstances leading up to each offence are different and many prisoners have been victims themselves.

Diane Abbott

The guest articles are of much higher quality than the actual content. Perhaps all the writers should be fired for editors instead.

Merrick

A solid article, however, Pritti Patel as Home Secretary in a country where vast swathes of the population still favour the death penalty, these poor sods have got no chance of getting out anytime soon.

Anonymous

Good. We are too soft on them. Prison should be about keeping the scum away from the rest of us.

Annabel Marshall

This an absolute tragic situation in these prisons. Prisoners are not locked up for 23 hours more like 72 hours currently. Receiving no mail for 3 days at a time. Not all people in prison are criminals- some are there by default due to the system.
Read the secret Barrister if you want to know more!
I can’t even start to tell you about the person I know currently in prison, his story is heartbreaking and I don’t know how he will recovery from this.
By the grace of god go I and that’s what we should all be thinking.

Guardianistas of the Galaxy

‘Shocking revelation’ – about 50% of links in this article are to the Guardian – so at least its authoritative…

I Don't Hug Hoodies

Exactly, real Brits want whats fair, for criminals to be locked up more for longer. Guardian reader types see this as an excuse for going soft on the sort of people who make life awful for the good people of the nation. Prisoners are hardly going to be in an major risk groups for covid, and if some are they can be put in solitary, where more of them should be in the first place.

People deserve the chance to change

There isn’t enough space in solitary for all those who are at high-risk to COVID-19. Prisons were built for far fewer inmates than there are currently.

Besides, not sure your argument really stands for non-violent, low risk offenders, many of whom leave prison have probably served you coffee, or wished you a good day.
Bad choices that lead to offending don’t mean they are bad people.

Anonymous

But the vast majority of them are bad people. If you don’t want to be marked for life don’t “make bad choices” or as decent members of society say it “don’t commit crimes you immoral scumbags”.

Hmmmm

Funny how no-one regards Jeffrey Epstein, terrorists, paedophiles or people who have murdered children as victims who made ‘bad choices’. Probably because they aren’t?

You’d run a mile if one of those moved in next door.

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