Covid-19 early release scheme for prisoners ‘mired in complexity and risk aversion’

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Covid-19 early release scheme for prisoners ‘mired in complexity and risk aversion’

The government’s early release scheme for prisoners was ‘mired in complexity and risk aversion’ with just 22 of 70 women prisoners considered to be eligible under the government’s early release scheme released and seven of 1,500 most vulnerable people.

A new report from the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody casts light on ‘the confusion’ caused by the Government’s announcements in the press that ‘led people to believe that thousands of prisoners would be released early’. There proposals were ‘hard to understand, difficult to explain and close to impossible to deliver’, the report said.

The panel has published a rapid review on prisoners’ experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the recommendations, the review highlights the need for ‘clear and accurate’ communication, a faster implementation of the early release scheme, and more focus on the mental well-being of prisoners.

The review was conducted in partnership with the National Prison Radio and draws on messages from around 200 prisoners across 55 prisons in the UK recorded between March 18 and May 5. One message read: ‘The COVID 19 virus has us banged up 23 hours a day. There’s no food, no nothing. No extra perks. What do you want us to do? Our minds are going to go and they’ll have a riot on their hands. They need to sort something out.’

‘For people in custody during the pandemic, this is prison within a prison,’ comments Juliet Lyon CBE, panel chair. She described post-Lockdown prisons as ‘a time of increased isolation and dependence, mitigated for some people by good communication, sound relationships with staff, routines and small acts of kindness’. ‘Blighted for others by bereavement, bleak conditions, uncertainty, fear, raised expectations and dashed hopes,’ she added.’ The advisory panel is jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health and the Home Office.

At the start of lockdown on March 23, the prisons minister announced that pregnant women and mothers and babies, as well as vulnerable people who met requirements for shielding, would be considered for temporary release. ‘Confusion has been noticeably increased by high profile Government announcements which led people to believe that thousands of prisoners would be released early,’ the review found.

On April 4, the Lord Chancellor announced the end of Custody Temporary Release scheme to create the headroom needed in overcrowded prisons by allowing new arrivals to be put in quarantine, people with the virus to be isolated and the vulnerable shielded. ‘As of 26 May of the 4,000 people who were at first thought to be eligible, just 79 had been released,’ the panel reported. Eligibility criteria and the ‘convoluted process of early release’ were ‘mired in complexity and risk aversion’. ‘The schemes are hard to understand, difficult to explain and close to impossible to deliver, even for a disciplined service like the prison service,’ the group continued.

The report revealed ‘a high degree of respect and appreciation for staff’ from prisoners. As one prisoner put it: ‘I clap on a Thursday for the NHS but also for us prisoners too, governors, healthcare staff, everybody that’s working to help us prisoners get through this by being patient… Big respect to you key-workers coming in to make sure we are safe and being away from loved ones. Be safe and thank you.’

Other prisoners expressed their frustrations. ‘The governor says that we’re working as a community, that’s not right at all. We’re not getting listened to at all,’ said one. ‘When we try to raise our opinions, the staff aren’t listening, they just avoid us or tell us to shut up. When people are needing to see the nurse we’re not getting seen to. There’s a lot of people in here struggling with their mental health, staff aren’t listening. What’s it going to take? For people to start committing suicide, to start self-harming, it’s absolutely disgraceful. They say we can go out for 20 minutes exercise and even when we keep distances, we still get officers shouting at us to move more about…a lot of people’s mental health is declining and something needs to be done sooner rather than later.’


Additional reporting by Jon Robins