At least 11 European countries have restricted new arrivals into prison since March. As the grid below details, governments have opted to postpone or suspend new prison sentences for some, or in some jurisdictions, all of those sentenced to immediate custody.
At the beginning of April, the government announced plans for the early release of up to 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales, to reduce prison overcrowding and slow the rate of infection among prisoners and staff.
The target was unambitious. The Prison Governors Association and Public Health England have argued that releasing 10,000 - 15,000 prisoners is needed. But it was a small step in the right direction.
Prisons are cramped and unsanitary institutions, full of people with underlying health problems who receive inadequate healthcare whilst they’re incarcerated. They also increase the rate of spread in the community due to the daily through-flow of families and service providers visiting prisoners, staff clocking in and out, and prisoners starting and finishing custodial sentences.
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.