Coronavirus risks turning imprisonment into a death sentence for some

Friday, 3 April 2020

In our latest eBulletin, our Director Richard Garside summarises the work we are doing in response to the growing coronavirus crisis in our prisons.

"With coronavirus continuing to dominate both the headlines and our collective social experience," he writes, "the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has been focusing on the implications for the justice system in general, and the prison system in particular.

He continues:

Over recent weeks we have lent our voice to several calls for action, including in relation to children and young prisoners, female prisoners, and those with health vulnerabilities. The message has been a clear one: a managed early release programme to get prisoners out of harm's way; urgent steps to prevent unnecessary imprisonment; and action in prisons to protect the health and well-being of prisoners and staff.

Next week we will be starting work on a new project, with partners across a number of European countries, taking stock of the current incidence and spread of coronavirus in prisons in Europe, and assessing the different policies and practices currently being pursued to limit the spread of coronavirus in prisons and reduce possible infections, illness and death. You can read more about our plans here.

We have also been refocussing our existing work, to take into account the new reality created by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, through our short prison sentences project, we have been exploring how different countries are using short sentence changes, as well as early release programmes, to reduce risk of infection in prison. As my colleague Helen Mills explains here, there have been some hopeful signs of action in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In England and Wales, on the other hand, the situation is grave. The number of confirmed coronavirus infections continue to rise. Last week the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland revealed in parliament that there are nearly 2,000 prisoners who had health conditions that, were they living in the community, would result in their being shielded. Instead, they are in unhygienic, over-crowded prisons, where social distancing and shielding is impossible. For some, prison risks being a death sentence.

There are reports that at least one prison is breaching guidelines by placing prisoners who have tested positive for coronavirus in cells with prisoners who have not. There are also reports that a quarter of prison staff are absent due to coronavirus-related issues.

Yesterday the president of the Prison Governors’ Association, told The Daily Telegraph that 'Prisons are now at the point where a decision must be made and implemented immediately on early release of prisoners'. While the situation remains very unpredictable, there is no sign, at time of writing, that the Justice Secretary is willing to make this necessary call. Indeed, the government instead appears to be directing its energies into expanding prison capacity, including in immigration detention centres, army barracks, and police and court cells, rather than taking the decisive steps needed to prevent needless deaths and infection in prisons.

The scale of the potential coronavirus crisis in prison requires action of an appropriate seriousness and ambition. It is time for the Justice Secretary to show that he is up to this challenge.