Prisons need to emerge from the lockdown

Richard Garside
Friday, 1 May 2020

A regrettable feature of the current coronarvirus crisis is the government using it as an excuse to expand prison capacity, rather than as a prompt to address our crisis of overincarceration.

Earlier this week the government announced that the first 300 of a planned 500 'temporary, single occupancy cells' had been installed in nine prisons. Behind the euphemisms lies a stark reality. The 'temporary, single occupancy cells' are adapted shipping containers.

The former Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent has also been 'temporarily reopened' to house adult prisoners. The site had been earmarked as the place for a controversial 'secure school' for 12 to 17 year olds, before the plans were kicked into the long grass late last year.

Only time will tell how 'temporary' these moves prove to be. In 1997, the then government opened HMP Weare, a 400 capacity prison ship moored off Portland Harbour in Dorset, supposedly for a temporary, three-year period. Prisoners were housed in airless containers stacked five high, many with little access natural light. The prison stayed open for eight years.

Compare the energy and enthusiasm with which the government has set about expanding prison capacity, with the conspicuous lack of urgency in the case of the early release programme. When the programme was announced in late March, the government claimed that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible. As of the middle of this week, a mere 33 prisoners had been released under the scheme.

It is possible to do things differently. Over recent weeks, the Centre has been working with partners across Europe, tracking the incidence of coronavirus in European prisons, and assessing how different countries are responding. As these infographics make clear, the differences are stark.

Since the start of the crisis, the French prison population has fallen by 14 per cent, the Italian by 10 per cent. In England and Wales, by contrast, it has fallen by a mere two per cent. Portugal has released 17 per cent of its prison population under the early release schemes alone. The comparable figure in England and Wales is 0.04 per cent.

In the coming weeks we will be releasing further analysis of the contrasting responses, and press for the UK to be among the best in Europe in dealing with coronarvirus in prison.

The current lockdown in prisons in England and Wales appears, so far, to have prevented a catastrophic spread of coronavirus across the prison system. But it has been achieved at great cost, with prisoners spending 23 hours or more in their cells each day. The emotional and physical toll on prisoners is great. As my colleague Matt Ford points out in this piece, 'the prison environment itself is designed to inflict deep psychological pain'.

At some point, prisons, like society at large, need to emerge from the lockdown. A reduced prison population will be a critical part of achieving this.