Why are the government delaying prisoner release?

We’re on Day 10 of lockdown in the UK. Our daily death number is more than yesterday’s. There is an ever more desperate shout from anyone involved in prisons or punishment for the government to get on and start releasing prisoners.

Just a few minutes ago The Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust issued a joint statement and included a report by Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine. Professor Coker’s report states that the risk of exposure to the virus to prisoners and staff is “far, far greater” than the risks to individuals in the wider community, adding that social distancing and personal infection control measures are “almost impossible” in prisons. It recommends that authorities “should consider alternative options to incarceration where feasible”.

Following a campaign active since the 20th March and led by Birth Companions, the government announced on Day 8 that pregnant women and women and children in mother and baby units in English prisons would be temporarily released if they posed a low risk and could be found alternative accommodation. I have not yet heard that this has taken place, but it should be in motion.

In emails with colleagues we have despaired at the government’s lack of willingness  to do what must be the right thing . Other countries have been much quicker in their response to the potential catastrophe that is Covid-19 in prisons – Iran and the US are among the countries that acted swiftly with prisoner release. Some Australian states have put legislation to allow early release in place, although I don’t know if it’s been acted on yet. 

So why is it not happening here?

I am not on the ground, so I don’t know how operationally difficult it would be to get people into alternative accommodation, but I do know from the reports coming out of our prisons, that keeping people in prison during a pandemic is also operationally difficult and carries significant risks for staff and prisoners. 

I can only assume that it is because prisoners are viewed as ‘other’ in this country. As we stand outside our doorways and applaud our NHS and key workers, it never crosses peoples’ minds that those doctors and nurses, teachers, shop workers, refuse collectors, police, fire service have people they love serving prison sentences. As they worry for their children stuck at home during the lockdown, missing friends or family they can’t see they don’t think about the children, just like our children, who have a mum or dad, big brother or auntie in prison. 

Following a conversation with a neighbour yesterday I realised once again that without any evidence to correct our misinformed and honestly held opinions, most people believe that we only lock up the most serious and dangerous criminals. If they weren’t really bad they wouldn’t be in prison would they?

I’ve written a detailed briefing paper about the characteristics of the women held in prison, available here based on the government’s own data. Here are a few figures to dispel the myth that prison holds only the most dangerous offenders:

1 in 4 children held in secure detention is on remand eg hasn’t yet been found guilty of anything, or has not been sentenced. 27% of those children go on to be acquitted of any crime and a further 36% are given a non custodial sentence. 
36% of women in prison are in prison for theft, and 77% of women in prison have been sentenced to less than 3 months, meaning they will spend 6 weeks in prison. What if those 6 weeks are these 6 weeks? Why should they be subjected to the increased risks of Covid-19 in a place where they can’t self isolate, or protect their children, or support their elderly relatives?
Scotland, England and Wales have among the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe.
1 in 10 people in prison have not been convicted of a crime
67% of people in prison have committed a non-violent offence. Prison is not just being used for dangerous and violent offenders.
35% of women in prison have a disability
When women appeal their convictions and / or sentences they have a 46-50% success rate.

Many people in our prisons do not need to be punished by imprisonment. Their crimes are neither so serious nor so dangerous that prison is the only possible punishment.

By continuing to hold them in prison during the pandemic the government risks their lives and the wellbeing of their families on the outside. Along with many others I propose that all people sentenced to less than 6 months should be released with immediate effect if they can be released to safe places. All on remand for non-violent offences and on recall should also be released, again with the same caveat of going to safe places. All those previously engaged on ROTL have already been risk assessed and should be released. I hope that by the time I publish this the Mother and Baby Units will be emptied, and pregnant women will no longer be held in prison. 

If 80,000 people are kept imprisoned during this time, we risk many unnecessary illnesses and probable deaths, among both prisoners and staff. We also face a future where it has been made clear to a great many families in our society that their loved ones were treated as lesser at this time. The consequence of this will be felt in years to come.  







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