The relentless march of coronavirus across prisons

Richard Garside
Friday, 10 April 2020

Following lockdowns and social distancing, some encouraging signs of the beginnings of a slowdown in the spread of COVID-19.

In prisons, however, all the signs are that, far from being slowed, the onward march of coronavirus is accelerating. The number of prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 in England and Wales has doubled in a week. At least ten prisoners have died since the outbreak began. There will surely be more.

Earlier this week the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, told the House of Commons Justice Committee about the government's plans for the early release of up to 4,000 prisoners, to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading through the prison system.

Yet when pressed on how many prisoners had been released as part of an earlier initiative in relation to pregnant women, the Justice Secretary confirmed the number at a mere six.

This embarrassingly small number is only one sign of a lack of seriousness on the part of the Ministry of Justice in the face of a clear and present danger of widespread coronavirus infection in prison.

A few weeks ago the Justice Secretary told the same Committee that there were around 1,800 prisoners who, were they living in the community, would be subject to shielding arrangements because of their potential vulnerability to COVID-19 infection.

Given this, it would make sense for any early release programme specifically to target this group. As my colleague Roger Grimshaw points out, finding safe and suitable provision for this particularly vulnerable group should be a top priority.

Yet eligibility for the early release programme is based on prisoners being close to the end of their sentence. Any release of vulnerable prisoners under this scheme would be coincidental, not intentional.

According to the Prison Governors Association, the proposed early release of 4,000 prisoners, in any case, falls far short of the numbers required. According to the Assocation, Public Health England and the Prison Service have proposed 'a reduction of 15,000 prisoners in order to truly safeguard prisoners and staff'. Criticising the 'woefully short' target of 4,000 released prisoners, the Association pointed out that, 'This is about saving the lives of staff and prisoners and brave decisions must be made to achieve this'.

The government has taken the difficult decision to put millions of people across the UK under a relatively benign, but real, form of house arrest. An ongoing unwillingness to take the, comparatively much easier, decision to release ten to fifteen thousand prisoners to protect lives could come back to haunt the government if COVID-19 entrenches itself in the prison system.

Early release from prison is only one of a number of tactics governments can use to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prison. In this piece, my colleague Matt Ford offers an update on our work collating what is happening across Europe in the fight against coronavirus in prisons.

We're aiming to share the emerging findings later this month.