The announcement of early releases from prisons in England and Wales is a welcome sign that the seriousness of the COVID-19 infection risk is being acknowledged, though how far, and how thoroughly, is still open to question.
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. Electronic monitoring is, in reality, a graduated continuation of the prison: it is intrusive and confining; it brings its own deprivations; it can be stigmatising, especially when the nature of equipment must be revealed to contacts.
With the new GPS systems, a range of exclusions from locations can be enforced and the movements of a person can be retrospectively ‘trailed’ if there are indications of a connection with an offence. Perhaps the most important risk is endangering families, who might find the arrival of a former prisoner hard to cope with.
In addition to setting out plans for early release, the government has identified a number of vulnerable prisoners. It would be ideal if the seclusion arrangements succeed in ‘shielding’ them, but the alternative of release or transfer to less risky facilities seems appealing. With hospitals under acute pressure it would be important to find provision for them which might be safe and suitable.
As numerous inspection reports have testified, prisons are already too unsafe for there to be great confidence in the success of policies to manage the crisis. Moreover the risks of infection in a prison are far higher than in the community, according to a recent report by Professor Richard Coker.
There is a case for some form of prison and probation inspection to take place, even at this exceptionally difficult time, to ensure that the welfare and interests of prisoners, ex-prisoners and staff are being fully respected. Access to prisoners and staff could be made possible by secure electronic means, thus enabling their experiences and views to be reflected in the evolution of policy. The scope of the early release scheme should be urgently reviewed to reflect these realities and to safeguard vulnerable groups.
While the police are supervising the streets, the business of the courts is deliberately being slowed down, according to the Courts and Tribunals Service. It is time for the prison authorities to do their part to prioritise welfare and safety in the face of unprecedented conditions.