February 01 2023

Prisoners’ early release scheme paused

Prisoners’ early release scheme paused

Prison officer checking cell at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison

The early release scheme to help prisoners cope with Covid-19 has been paused after six inmates were released as a result of an ‘administrative error’.

Inmates were let out of two open Category D prisons in Gloucestershire and Derbyshire, Leyhill and Sudbury, along with one inmate from the Isis Category C prison and young offenders institute in southeast London. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), all six of the prisoners released had ‘returned compliantly to prison’. ‘We have strengthened the administrative processes around the scheme to make sure this does not happen again,’ a spokesman added.

As of Tuesday last week, only 18 people had been released under the two schemes announced by the government in response to the crisis. As of Thursday last week, 13 inmates had died as a result of coronavirus and 255 prisoners had tested positive in 62 jails. In addition, some 138 prison staff have also contracted the virus in 49 prisons as well as seven escort and custody staff. Some 700 staff had been tested and 6,268 were self-isolating.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: ‘These errors must not be used as an excuse for inaction in the face of an oncoming public health disaster. If the MoJ does not take sufficient steps to move towards single-cell occupancy, it is not only inmates and prison officers who will be put at risk.’

Meanwhile the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust have written to the secretary of state for justice, Robert Buckland, over the government’s inaction. The letter before action suggests a range of actions that the government could take including expanding the scope of the temporary scheme, expediting the consideration of release of pregnant women and mothers, and considering the release of all children in custody.

‘The Secretary of State has accepted publicly that the number of people in prison must be reduced significantly in order to save lives. However, this has not – and cannot – be achieved by the measures that the government currently has in place,’ commented Frances Crook, the Howard League’s chief exec. ‘The rate of infection is accelerating, and the window of opportunity to protect people is vanishing. Ministers must rise to this challenge and act immediately to avert a public health catastrophe.’

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said ‘everything good about government action in tackling this emergency’ had been characterised by being ‘early and decisive’. ‘On prisons, by contrast, it is a story of too little, too late,’ he said. ‘The scientific and operational advice couldn’t be clearer – if ministers are serious about following it, they must go much further, and do it now.’

Early release: international comparisons

  • Northern Ireland is to release 200 of its 1,500 prisoners.
  • France has released almost 10,000 people from prison in the past month.
  • Netherlands has stopped those who were due to be detained on short sentences from doing so for the time being.
  • Turkey is to release tens of thousands of prisoners.
  • In the US, various states have released hundreds of prisoners. In California alone, 3,500 people are to be granted early release in an effort to reduce crowding.