Time to focus minds on a long-term vision for criminal justice

Richard Garside
Friday, 22 May 2020

This week it emerged that prisoners with coronavirus symptoms have been locked in their cells in Wandsworth prison for up to 14 days at a stretch.

This is the grim reality behind the apparent success, at least in the short-term, in preventing a devastating spread of coronavirus across the prison system.

Yet our prisons are still in the early stages of dealing with this disease. As Charley Allen pointed out in this piece, 'The whole estate remains a tinderbox — and, while the outside world rightly focuses on preventing a devastating second or even third wave of infections later in the year, prisons are still climbing their first peak'.

It doesn't have to be this way. As one of our latest infographics points out, governments, courts and prisons administrators across Europe are developing innovative approaches to sentencing to reduce the flow of people into the prison system.

In the United States, the threat of coronavirus in prisons has focused minds in San Francisco, whose Board of Supervisors have brought forward plans to close one of its dangerous and dilapidated county jails. It is a small, but telling, example.

Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the government announced last week that it had installed 447 shipping container cells across 13 prisons, with more to come. Plans to extend the use of the home detention curfew scheme have also been cancelled.

The short-termism and lack of vision are clear to see.

In her latest piece, my colleague Helen Mills discusses some of the options open to the government in relation to sentencing reform. As she observes:

Intervening in sentencing is not alien to this government. Their manifesto committed them to tougher sentencing. Why do interventions only ever go upwards? Why can’t they intervene to reduce, defer or suspend?

I discussed some of the wider implications of the current crisis in a webinar last week, alongside Steve Gillan from the Prison Officers Association and Faith Spear, a former Independent Monitoring Board member. You can watch the discussion here.

Next Tuesday I'll be speaking at a further webinar, hosted by Children of Prisoners Europe. You can register to attend here.

We have also had a great response to our planned webinars in June on coronavirus and the criminal justice system. Over 100 people have expressed an interest in attending each event.

The latest speakers to confirm are Vera Baird DBE QC, Independent Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, and Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, and Kathy Evans, Chief Executive of Children England.

If you have already registered, we will be in touch soon.

If you would like to attend, and have not registered your interest yet, you can do so here.