A former justice secretary and the thinktank Reform are amongst those calling for the early release of prisoners and the suspension of short sentences to limit the spread of coronavirus throughout the UK prison population. Experts have said that more than 800 deaths could be avoided if these recommendations are followed.
This weekend, David Gauke stated that the advantage ‘of not sending people inside for short sentences is that it reduces the churn… That is really important. There is a lot of churn in prisons, with people coming in and out. That creates a risk.’ He continued by saying that there is also ‘a strong case’ for early release for some of those coming towards the end of their sentences: ‘one should not overstate how significant that could be in reducing risks.’
Similar points were made by public services thinktank Reform in their latest report, Reducing the prison population (here) published last Friday. This report recognises that in the context of the present COVID-19 threat, the current combination of ‘overcrowded and insanitary conditions and poor quality healthcare’ means that the virus poses an increased risk to the system. The report’s concluding remark is unequivocal: ‘The prison service is in a critical and barely stable condition, and COVID-19 could exacerbate the problems it is facing. The Government must act now.’
As previously reported, England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe (here), with the prison population at 83,917 as of last Friday. Reform’s proposal for a ban on sentences of six months or less would mean that an estimated 2,305 offenders – those found guilty of non-violent, non-sexual, and non-weapons-based crimes – would not be placed into custody. It is said that this could have a significant impact on the prison population by reducing the flow of new prisoners into the system and thus limiting inmates’ exposure to the virus.
It is stated by Reform that the above measure could be coupled with the more immediate act of transferring prisoners currently serving short sentences to Home Detention Curfews (HDCs). This is a topic already being considered by the Government in terms of extending the period of release to 6 months, from 135 days. If followed, an impact assessment conducted by the Ministry of Justice found that that this could reduce the prison population by around 500, further dealing with overcrowding pressures.
Campaigners have warned that coronavirus could ‘spread like wildfire’ in Britain’s prisons. ‘Many prisons are filthy and disgustingly unhygienic. Staff, visitors and inmates are not able to wash and soap is frequently impossible to obtain,’ said Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
A tweet from BBC news reporter Danny Shaw yesterday revealed that alongside the confirmed cases amongst inmates at Manchester and Kilmarnock prisons, at least three more at Oakwood, Wymott and Birmingham prisons have now tested positive for Covid-19.
The Times (here) yesterday reported that inmates in jails have a higher prevalence of respiratory illnesses and other chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or liver disease than their counterparts living in the community. About 5,100 of the population is aged 60 and over with about 1,800 over 70.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at UCL, has stated that even if suspected cases are isolated, ‘[o]utbreaks can still start easily and spread rapidly through overcrowded prisons.’ ‘Moving the most vulnerable prisoners to less-crowded parts of the prison system, where outbreaks are easier to prevent and contain, and reducing mixing with other prisoners could save many lives.’
Chantal Edge, of the UCL’s department of epidemiology, added: ‘We are advocating that to save lives we need to cocoon our vulnerable population.’
It is reported that prisons in England and Wales have now moved to a ‘command and control’ system, with every institution being required to follow instructions from Prison Service HQ. Prison visits remain open, at least until any ‘robust contingency plans’ are issued by Public Health England.