Inaction on coronavirus exposes our deep attachment to prison

Richard Garside
Friday, 15 May 2020

Last September a woman on remand in Bronzefield prison gave birth, alone, in her cell. The baby died.

As Rona Epstein points out in this powerful piece, none of the numerous investigations set up into the death – at least seven by her reckoning – asked the most important question of all: why was this woman on remand in prison at all? Should, indeed, pregnant women be in prison?

Pregnant women are supposedly among those being prioritised for release from prison as part of the government's coronavirus response. Earlier this week, some 21 had been released, which is less than half the estimated 50 plus currently in prison.

On Tuesday this week, the total number of prisoners released under the government's early coronavirus early release scheme stood at 81. At this rate of progress, it will be many months before the government gets anywhere close to releasing the 4,000 prisoners supposedly eligible.

In our work assessing how other European countries are coping with the coronavirus crisis in prisons, we have identified at least 11 jurisdictions that are reducing the flow into prisons by suspending or postponing prison sentences, as my colleague Helen Mills describes in this piece.

In his latest infographics, Matt Ford has summarised the key information about the coronavirus response in Bulgaria and Hungary. You can see them, and all our coronavirus infographics, here.

New arrivals into prisons in England and Wales have slowed over the past eight weeks, but only because the courts have been restricted in their activities. With plans to restart jury trials later this month, there is a real risk of a surge in prison numbers again.

The failure of the government to take decisive action, even in the face of a potentially devastating threat of coronavirus sweeping through our prison system, says much about our deep collective attachment to prison as an institution, and to punishment as a response to the harm of crime.

The Centre's Chair of Trustees, Charlie Weinberg, has recently explored this conundrum in an article on the website of Abolition, the US-based journal of radical and insurgent politics. The article develops the ideas she first set out in this piece on our website.

What is it about punishment that makes it simultaneously both compelling and destructive?, she asks. 'Punishment does not "contain" our anxieties or enable us to digest the unbearable', Charlie writes, 'rather, it creates further anxieties (how much punishment is "enough")?'. You can read Charlie's latest piece here.

In June, we will be holding three webinars on the wider implications for the criminal justice system of the coronavirus response. There's a great line-up of speakers.

You can find out more about the webinars, and register your interest in attending, here.