What has gone down must go up

Richard Garside
Friday, 10 July 2020

“Mum phones every day. I cannot explain how it makes me feel. It makes me feel sad and confused”.

The words of a ten-year-old, talking about the emotional strain of not being able to see their mother, currently on lockdown in prison, as recounted in a recent report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

A grandmother told the Committee that her imprisoned daughter had previously been able to make home visits every two weeks. This stopped with lockdown. None of them had seen her for over three months. “This is affecting the children in a bad way, especially the youngest, aged six. He has nightmares and cries so much. We all just need to see her”, she said.

The collateral damage to children's mental health and wellbeing of enforced separation from imprisoned relatives has long been a concern, damage undoubtably compounded by the ban on visits since March. As the prison service gears up for visits to restart, it is worth remembering that things could have been done differently.

At the start of lockdown, the government announced an early release programme for prisoners, including mothers and pregnant women. To date, a mere 16 women with babies, and a mere seven pregnant women, have been released under the programme. Ministerial energy has instead gone into expanding prison capacity – including installing prison cells in repurposed shipping containers – rather than addressing unnecessary imprisonment.

Despite this ministerial inaction, the prison population in England and Wales has fallen since the start of the coronavirus crisis: by some 4,500 prisoners. But as my colleague Matt Ford points out in this analysis, the falls have largely been down to drops in recorded crime and the suspension of much court activity.

As the courts start working through the backlog of cases, the prison population could start rising again. As Matt notes: “In the absence of sentencing reform... and with a government reluctant to embark on a substantive programme of early release, what has gone down must go up”.