Overcoming the cops in our heads

Richard Garside
Friday, 24 April 2020

'The virus doesn’t care if you’re an officer or a prisoner. If a prisoner has it today, the officers will have it tomorrow and the officer’s family will have it the day after that.'

David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, is surely correct. Coronavirus poses a dreadful threat to prisoners. But prison staff can hardly be insulated from its effects. 

This was one of the main points I sought to make this week in an interview with The Guardian, which you can read here. Inaction by government on coronavirus is not just putting prisoners’ lives at risk but also prison staff, and the general public. If you were to set out to create an institution with the express intent of concentrating and transmitting Covid-19, it would probably look much like a prison.

If we are to combat the spread of coronavirus in prisons, we need to learn the lessons from other prison-based epidemics. As Anton Shelupanov points out in this piece, the parallels between coronavirus and the 1990s resurgence of tuberculosis in prisons are clear. 'Like tuberculosis,' he writes, 'Covid-19 thrives in overcrowded unhygienic conditions, of which prisons are often a prime example'.

Part of the solution involves cutting the flow into prisons – reducing the use of remand for instance – while accelerating the release out of prisons, including through the much talked about, but currently disgracefully slow, early release programmes.

The apparent inability of the government to take decisive action to reduce the risk of infection among prisoners and prison staff says much about the enduring hold prisons exert on us and on our sense of what is possible. These 'cops in our own heads', Charlie Weinberg argues here, means that we can allow ourselves to imagine prison releases 'only under certain circumstances, for some people and as a "temporary" or "emergency" measure. In this way, we sustain a superficial attitude to what the same "cops" reinforce as being our punitive nature, rather than considering the fact that punishment is not a useful way to contain harm'.

But what if we were to overcome the cops in our own heads? What if we were to release thousands of prisoners, in a managed way, to help reduce the threat of coronavirus infection, and the sky didn’t fall in? What then?

Then we could start thinking about who we imprison and why, and consider different ways to sanction people. Some will always need to be contained, but prisons at the moment are a 19th-century solution to a twenty-first century problem.

As my colleague Matt Ford points out here, we could then start thinking about closing prisons down, rather than filling them back up, and redeveloping the land they occupy in a way that benefits the communities around them.

There is always a better use for a piece of land than as a place for a prison.