A dangerous outlier in the fight against coronavirus in prison

Helen Mills
Friday, 3 April 2020

In the last few days, the Ministry of Justice has announced the temporary release of women who are pregnant or in mother and baby units.

This is a sensible response to simply allow these women to follow government guidance to minimise social contact. Pregnant women are one of a number of groups who are currently recommended to do so. It is also a step woefully behind much of Europe’s management of coronavirus in prisons. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland estimated 1,800 people in prison would meet the public health shielding criteria if they were in the general population. This week’s announcement on pregnant women covers around four per cent of those who are considered most vulnerable.

What about the other 96 per cent?

In terms of population management the impact is minimal, affecting around 70 people in a population of just over 83,000. This isn’t a measure which will contribute to slowing the spread of coronavirus in prison. At best it’s a slow response when urgency is essential. At worse it makes us a dangerous outlier.

Thus far at least 13 European countries have reformed short prison sentences in response to coronavirus in prisons. Taking steps to either release those on short prison sentences or to stop people entering prison on this basis.

Northern Ireland has announced the temporary measure to release up to 200 prisoners prior to the end of their sentences. Scotland may well be next. On Wednesday Holyrood passed primary legislation to enable the early release of prisoners. If it is enacted, who will be included in the scheme is yet to emerge.

Prisoners across Europe are being prioritised for release on the basis of the administratively straight-forward, such as bringing forward release dates by a matter of months, to early release plans which reportedly may cover a third of the prison population. More details are in this table.  

How these reforms will be carried out in practice will be important to track. We’ll be updating and adding to this information over time.

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