Make older prisoners a priority for early release

Richard Garside
Friday, 17 April 2020

Another week, and the signs are that the problem of coronavirus crisis in prisons continues to get worse.

Earlier this week the House of Commons Justice Committee relaunched an inquiry into the ageing prison population. Originally launched last July, but cut short as a result of the December 2019 General Election, the restarted inquiry is timely.

According to the latest available figures, there are more than 5,000 prisoners in England and Wales aged 60 or over. Nearly 2,000 are aged over 70. We've put together a helpful summary here. Please do download and share the infographic.

The older prison population is vulnerable at the best of times. With coronavirus sweeping through prisons, this age group is at particular risk of serious illness or death. The government should be prioritising older prisoners for early or temporary release.

The government regularly claims that it is being guided by the experts in its coronavirus response. While this might be the case in relation to the current lockdown and the social distancing measures, there is little evidence that it is applying this approach to prisons.

Last week the Prison Governors Association revealed Public Health England and the Prison Service advice that a reduction of 15,000 prisoners was required "in order to truly safeguard prisoners and staff". This week the prisons minister, Lucy Frazer, admitted that a mere 18 prisoners – 14 pregnant women and women with babies, and four men – had so far been released under the coronavirus early release programmes.

Over the last month, the French prison population has been reduced by nearly 10,000. By comparison, the prison population in England and Wales declined by just over 1,000 during the course of March. Much more concerted action by the government, to get a grip of the situation, is required.

Coronarvirus in prisons is arguably the biggest challenge facing the criminal justice system. It is not the only one. In May we will be holding a virtual symposium on the implications of the coronavirus for the criminal justice system, in partnership with The Open University. You can find out more about our plans, and how to get involved, here.