The details of the government’s prison early release scheme

Work with Offenders looks at the now public criteria for the early release scheme designed to contain the spread of coronavirus in our prisons.

As readers will know, some weeks ago the government announced that it would be releasing prisoners early in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on prisoners and staff living in our overcrowded prisons and “to protect the NHS and save lives”.

The MoJ announced that early release would be focused on two groups:

  1. Pregnant prisoners who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public would be temporarily released from prison to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus. The same criteria applied to women prisoners in Mother and Baby Units who would also be released along with their children.
  2. All prisoners who are within two months of their release date and are also assessed as low risk would be temporary released from jail.

So far, there has been relatively little activity with less than 100 individuals released from both these cohorts combined and the early release scheme for prisoners within two months of their release date was suspended after six prisoners were mistakenly freed early.

However, it appears that the government is intending to restart the scheme with the official criteria for what we must now learn to call the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme (ECTR) published last Friday.

At the same time, the MoJ published a separate set of criteria for the potential compassionate temporary release of some prisoners, for example because they are pregnant or extremely medically vulnerable to Covid-19. The MoJ says that these prisoners may be considered for Release on Temporary Licence based on a case-by-case assessment of whether it would be safe to do so.

There are nine criteria set out to eligibility for the ECTR scheme. Prisoners must:

  1. Be assessed as having a low or medium Risk of Serious Harm level
  2. Not be eligible for MAPPA management on release
  3. Not be serving a sentence of any length for any of the violent or sexual offences specified in Schedule 15 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, or one on the list of further violent and sexual offences set out in Annex A.
  4. Not serving a sentence of four or more years imprisonment for an offence on the ‘Possession of weapon offences’ list set out in an Annex to the Policy
  5. Be within 61 days of their conditional release date
  6. Have already served at least half the custodial term they were sentenced to
  7. Not be serving a fixed term or standard recall
  8. Not be identified as posing a risk of domestic abuse or a concern related to child safeguarding
  9. Not be assessed as posing a risk to national security if released.

In addition, to be eligible, people in prison must have suitable accommodation to be released to and their healthcare including, any COVID-19 considerations, must be able to be safely managed on their release. Everyone released on ECTR will also have their whereabouts electronically monitored from the moment of release. They must also comply with a large number of conditions we think will be of sufficient interest to readers to reproduce in full here:

  • be of good behaviour and not behave in a way which undermines the purpose of the licence period;
  • not commit any offence;
  • comply with all current Government Covid-19 announcements, directions and guidelines;
  • keep their temporary licence with them at all times throughout the release on temporary licence, and must provide it if requested to do so by a police officer or a probation officer;
  • reside at their address between the hours of 7pm and 7am unless otherwise authorised by a variation to the licence;
  • not partake in gambling, or making payments for other games of chance;
  • not consume alcohol or enter any premises whose primary function is the sale and consumption of alcohol; i.e. pubs, club and bars. They may enter licenced premises such as supermarkets provided they do not purchase or consume alcohol;
  • not contact the media (including any person or place associated with broadcasting or publication), either directly or via a third party;
  • not upload, add or modify any material on any social networking site or internet chat-room either directly or via a third party;
  • not take unauthorised controlled drugs or psychoactive substances;
  • not return to the establishment with any unauthorised articles; and
  • not leave the United Kingdom.

Readers will see that in addition to the sort of normal conditions that would be expected – being of good behaviour, not committing any offences nor taking illegal drugs – they are also prohibited from drinking, gambling, using social media and are subject to a 12 hour per day curfew.

Quite how all these conditions will be policed is unclear.

Given that other countries have already released many thousands of their prisoners as part of their attempts to combat coronavirus, it will be interesting to see whether the publication of these new strict criteria will mean the MoJ feels able to push on with its early release scheme.