Will the government act on prisons and coronavirus?

Work with Offenders looks at the options to protect prisoners from Covid-19

Criminal justice and public health experts alike have become increasingly concerned about the risk that coronavirus poses to people in prison.

Yesterday the World Health Organisation warned that prisons around the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from Covid-19 unless they take immediate action. The WHO recommendations include all visitors, as well as prison staff and new receptions to be subject to airport-style temperature testing and health assessments at point of entry.

As readers will know, prisoners are particularly vulnerable. They live in overcrowded conditions (in England and Wales 70% of prisons hold more people than they were designed for) which often makes it impossible to respect our core guidelines around handwashing with soap, individual towels and social distancing. A much higher proportion of the prison population has serious health problems and compromised immune systems and a growing proportion of prisoners in this country are older people. Communicable diseases have always been a particular concerns with infection rates for tuberculosis, for example, between 10 and 100 times higher than in the community in prisons in different countries around the world.

There are more than 10 million men women and children in prisons worldwide and jails are overcrowded in at least 121 countries.

The WHO points out that if our prisons become hotbeds of coronavirus, this will undermine governments’ attempts to stop the spread of the virus in the wider community.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, speaking to the Guardian, said: “Covid-19 knows no boundaries; this includes transmission between detainees, facility staff, visitors, and undoubtedly extending outward to (re)infect the general public. Only the boldest of actions will slow and stop the spread of disease. We must not leave anyone behind in this fight.”

Options

A number of respected commentators have suggested a variety of steps that the Ministry of Justice could take, many of which are thought to be under active consideration. These include:

Extending home detention curfew

Allowing prisoners to be released early on the condition that they wear an electronic monitoring tag. The Reform thinktank has argued that the government should consider using emergency legislation to release all prisoners currently serving a sentence of less six months on a HDC.

Any crisis will, of course, expose structural problems and one of the key difficulties with significantly increasing the numbers on HDC is that anyone wearing the tag must be in fixed accommodation and many of our prisoners are released homeless.

Temporarily banning short prison sentences

Reform and other experts, including former Justice Secretary David Gauke, have called for a temporary ban on the courts passing a sentence of six months or less.

The challenge in this case would be that people convicted during the period of any ban would need to be subject to another form of punishment. Suspended prison sentences would seem illogical in many cases since they are technically a form of imprisonment. This means that most people not given a short prison sentence would be placed on a community sentence to be supervised by the probation service. Given the long-standing crisis in the probation sector, exacerbated, like every other service in society right now, by coronavirus, this would be extremely problematic. Placing people on probation who were subject only to occasional telephone supervision might well be justified as a short-term risk but would still be a brave political decision given our lack of knowledge at how long the Covid-19 crisis will last.

Conclusion

Whatever course of action the government decides on, it seems obvious to most of us that it needs to make those decisions as soon as possible.