Whilst reading, I felt painfully constrained, thinking of whom I might include in this month’s post. To offset this anxiety, I decided to delve wistfully into some easy listening, mainly frothy, pop music hits from the 1980s online. As I was doing so I recognised the melodious voice and gimmicky backdrop of the singer in a particular video, who had subsequently passed through the portals of the probation office and whose supervision on licence I had undertaken.
Earlier this week the government announced that the first 300 of a planned 500 'temporary, single occupancy cells' had been installed in nine prisons. Behind the euphemisms lies a stark reality. The 'temporary, single occupancy cells' are adapted shipping containers.
As our director said at the beginning of the outbreak, if an institution was to be invented with the express intention of maximising the spread of coronavirus, and of concentrating it among those most likely to be vulnerable to it, that institution would probably look much like a prison.
It’s called Sentenced to Die: the problem of TB in Prisons in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It was edited by my first boss, the remarkable Baroness Vivien Stern, and published in 1999.
There have been demands that some people in prison merit release due to their ‘low risk’ to the public, their age, health condition or proximity to a release date anyway.
A report by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that a third of people critically ill with COVID-19 were black and minority ethnic, compared to 18 per cent in the wider UK population.
Earlier this week the House of Commons Justice Committee relaunched an inquiry into the ageing prison population. Originally launched last July, but cut short as a result of the December 2019 General Election, the restarted inquiry is timely.
In prisons, however, all the signs are that, far from being slowed, the onward march of coronavirus is accelerating. The number of prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 in England and Wales has doubled in a week. At least ten prisoners have died since the outbreak began. There will surely be more.
Prisons, by their nature, are potential hotbeds for the transmission of the coronavirus among those most vulnerable to infection and its most acute effects. Prisoners do not have the freedom to take the kinds of precautions we’re all taking to limit the contagion and reduce our risk of exposure.
What are the implications of the release policy? With the whole country under effective lockdown it is uncertain just what the risks of re-offending might be during the emergency we are currently experiencing. The use of electronic monitoring with prisoners approaching the end of their detention marks a step in using such measures to reduce the prison population, but should not be over-estimated.
One recurring memory in particular prompted this post. When I first was introduced to Sharky (not his real name) it was in a slightly unconventional setting. I had just left a local community drug agency, following the conclusion of a separate three-way meeting, when a hoarse voice called out my name, or at least it sounded like my name. ‘Are you Mr Gifford (sic)?’.