What has happened with prisoner release and covid-19 infection in prisons this week?
- Experts and the Government’s own pandemic plan mentioned here confirm that there is a need to reduce the prison population by significant numbers (estimated 15,000) in order to avert a public health disaster, not just among the prison population but also among prison staff and the community (see Professor Richard Coker’s Expert Report here). The Prison Governors’ Association have called for 15,000 prisoners to be released to ease pressure on prisons.
- Despite an announcement on 31st March that pregnant women and prisoners in mother and baby units would be released following risk assessment, only 17 women have been released. A general release scheme for 4000 members of the prisoner population was announced on 4th April. On 14th April only 18 people had been released in total and on 18th April it was announced that the scheme had been stopped due to administrative error. That scheme is now due to restart.
- As of 17:00 on Monday 20 April, 287 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 across 65 prisons; +9 in 24 hrs , 217 prison staff had tested positive for COVID-19 across 54 prisons; +23 in 24 hrs. However on 23rd April Lord Keen confirmed that only prisoners taken to hospital are being tested so the numbers are likely to be higher.
- On 21st April the Lord Chancellor said there had been 13 prisoner deaths, and I believe 4 prison officers have died from Covid-19 with a further 2 deaths of prison officers thought to be linked to Covid-19.
- All visits were stopped on 13th March 2020. It is now 6 weeks since any prisoners have had a visit. Phone calls: Robert Buckland told the JCHR on 21st April that there is now ‘telephony in all cells’. This is not true. Across the women’s estate there are some in cell phones in HMP Foston Hall. There are not at Send, Drake Hall, Sutton Park, Downview, Aksham Grange, Styal.
Questions to which we need answers
- So far no Minister has been able to say how many babies and toddlers are in our prisons (children can remain on Mother and Baby Units until the age of 18months). Surely someone must know the number? Not even being able to identify the population suggests there is little concern for their wellbeing. Women on mother and baby units should be a priority – what happens to the children if those mothers become ill?
- Release of pregnant women. We know that imprisonment of a mother increases the risks to unborn babies ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlLaFfSjvyk ). Imprisonment at this time when pregnant women are under increased stress and health care staff are under more pressure than usual, raises risks to unborn babies. Why have they not been released yet?
- 75% of women and 62% men in prison are sentenced to less than 12 months, 55% of women and 50% men in prison are sentenced to less than 6 months. (Hansard 2018). This suggests their crimes are neither the most serious or dangerous, and all could have had suspended sentences. What is holding up the release of the 4000 prisoners promised by the MOJ 2 weeks ago?
Children with a parent in prison. The right to family life
When a parent is sent to prison a child’s right to family life is interfered with by the state. It is arguable that it is diminished rather than removed, as a child can continue to have contact with a parent in prison. This is not always the case, but it is possible for children to visit their parent in prison and / or to speak to them on the phone.
Harriet Harman MP made the point on Monday at the Human Rights Committee questions to the Lord Chancellor, that since 13th March when visits were stopped, children have been denied the right to family life. Prison services across the UK have made attempts to improve this situation for children. In Northern Ireland each prisoner is given £5 of phone credit each week in order to ensure that they can have more phone calls with their loved ones. In addition the Northern Ireland prison service have instituted weekly visits for all prisoners in 2 prisons, and fortnightly virtual visits in the other prison. They take place via zoom or Skype and according to NIACRO the feedback from families has been positive. Despite some technical difficulties a staff member reports:
Everyone has spoken about how great it was to be able to see the individual and how much it has helped them mentally to see them…most people were saying it was a relief to see the individual face to face rather than a phone call.
Virtual face to face visits are essential and should be prioritised across the women’s estate in England and Wales as Lord Farmer said in the House of Lords on 23rd April. Such visits will benefit all children but they are essential for pre-verbal children who cannot talk on the phone to their parents. This week I was contacted by the grandmother of a 10 month old baby who was separated from his mother very suddenly and in the middle of the night when she was recalled to prison, a few days after prison visits had stopped. The mother had been his sole carer since birth. Since her reception into prison 6 weeks ago the baby has not seen his mother’s face. Although she telephones, he cries when he hears her voice. His mother is unable to reassure him with visual communication. We know that stability in primary attachments is absolutely critical before the age of two and the damage to this child’s attachment is likely to have significant harmful impacts on his development. Lord Keen said in the House of Lords debate that there is an iPad in each prison for compassionate visits. Communication between children and their primary carers should be a right but but until virtual calls are made available to all children, the iPad for compassionate visits should be used to maintain the primary attachments of babies separated from mothers.
Release of primary carers
The Lord Chancellor told the Human Rights Committee on Monday 20th April 2020 that he couldn’t consider dependants when deciding who to release because the sentencers had already considered impacts on dependants and had decided to send the parent to prison. However, the sentencers did not consider the impact of sending people to prison with an understanding of the impacts of Covid-19 and lockdown on children and families. It is arguable that if the sentencing took place knowing what we know now, many of those in prison on short sentences would have been given non-custodial or suspended sentences. Lord Alf Dubs made the same point in the House of Lords yesterday . When sentencing the sentencer must consider the impact of sentence on dependents and the Sentencing Council General Guideline: Overarching Principles (2019) states clearly that a harmful impact on dependants can make a proportionate sentence disproportionate, and may mean that a non custodial sentence becomes appropriate, or if custody is the right sentence, the sentence is suspended.
In this time of pandemic it is my contention that punishments have become disproportionate. Separating parents from their families at this time will have grievous effects on children’s mental health – research suggests an increase in anxiety due to decreased contact and worry about their parents’ health, as well as increasing risk to the prisoners’ life and wellbeing. The Government have said families are the ‘golden thread’ in rehabilitation. It is not supportive of this golden thread to increase the stress on prisoners’ families and those caring for their children.
My work focuses on the rights of children whose parents are involved with the criminal justice system. At this time children’s rights are being breached.
I cannot do direct research with children at this time so instead I am asking those who are taking care of children whose parent are in prison to share some information about their experiences. There is an anonymous online survey for anyone over the age of 18, anywhere in the world, who is caring for a child whose parent is in prison. It can be found here. I am very aware of the pressure families are under right now, so I am extremely appreciative of anyone giving their time to complete it.
There is also a survey for services providing support to children who have a parent in prison. Again this can be completed by anyone over the age of 18, anywhere in the world. It can be found here.