The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in our prisons

The Secret Prisoner
Monday, 15 March 2021

Firstly, it needs to be said that the whole population of the UK has suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic and this article in no manner holds the opinion that those in prison should be treated as a special cohort.

Those in prison are there having been sentenced by a court of law to suffer the loss of freedom for crimes committed. However, prisoners are there to serve out their sentence and not die whilst incarcerated. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has a legal duty of care to prisoners, due to their loss of rights and liberty, to ensure their health and well-being, especially in a pandemic.

The MoJ framed their strategy towards prisoner safety during the pandemic in two schemes:

  1. An early release scheme aimed at prisoners who were, for medical reasons, vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
  2. An early release scheme aimed at those prisoners less than sixty days from their release date. This second scheme was intended to substantially reduce the total number of prisoners, in recognition of the current overcrowded conditions.

Here are some real-life experiences of how these two schemes operated on the ground.

The MoJ’s early release scheme was fundamentally an intentional policy of form over substance. The policy was never intended to release a minimum of 4,000 prisoners as originally claimed. The scheme released less than 400 prisoners, many of these were pregnant women who everyone accepts should have been immediately released.

Under the first scheme, prisoners at risk were claimed to have been segregated and isolated from other prisoners. This is not correct. Segregation in prison is impossible. There are so many factors that completely compromise segregation, from prison staff having to meet with segregated prisoners to showers and toilets shared with other non-segregated cohorts and communal areas where you can't socially distance.

Prisoners who were clearly at severe risk to COVID-19, such as those dealing with cancer and other very serious medical conditions, were put through a bureaucratic process for many months. Their families were informed that they were going to be released, only be told after many weeks of waiting, that after further review of their circumstances, they no longer qualified for early release. The serious harm to the mental health of the prisoner and his family of such an unfeeling process is incalculable. To be isolated for weeks on end has done untold physical and mental harm to many prisoners.

The second scheme, early release in the last 60 days of final release, was no more successful. This scheme was not early release as advertised, but a mixture of home detention coupled with the prisoner being 'tagged' for the period of supposed early release. Essentially, a rebranding of an existing early release 'tag' scheme and that did not achieve its stated objective (substantial reduction in the prison population).

The two MoJ schemes were designed to fail and fail they did. Releasing prisoners on compassionate grounds is not what the MoJ does. However, the medical and mental health harm that their conduct caused is substantial. Yet due to the MoJ’s conduct, this harm will never be understood by the population.

The MoJ failed in their legal duty of care to prisoners.

After several sessions in front of parliamentary committees and journalists on current affairs programmes facing questions regarding the MoJ’s failing schemes, the Secretary of State for Justice, Mr. Robert Buckland MP, made two decisions.

The first was to terminate the publication of statistics of prisoners released and the number of prisoners who unfortunately died from COVID-19 (these statistics were eventually republished after parliamentary pressure). The second decision was for Buckland himself to disappear from public life for many months to avoid being questioned further on the lack of success of these key schemes.