What has happened to the prison population under coronavirus?

Work with Offenders looks at the latest data

On 31st of January this year, the UK recorded our first death from coronavirus. On that date the number of people in prison in England and Wales was 83,329. The Ministry of Justice issues weekly updates on the number of people in custody, publishing them every Friday morning. For the next six weeks, the prison population (fuelled by a number of “we are getting tough on crime” pronouncements and policy decisions by Boris Johnson’s new government) continued to rise steadily until it reached 83,917 on 13 March.

From that point on, the prison population fell steadily and consistently until by the middle of June it stood at 79,605. The main reason for this for was not the coronavirus early release scheme, of which more later, but the simple fact that very few of our courts were operating. This meant that although prisoners who came to the end of their sentence were being released from our prisons, very few people were being convicted of crimes and sent to custody.

Interestingly, even though our courts have started operating again and capacity has been augmented by the introduction of Nightingale courts, the prison population has remained pretty flat over the last two months. On Friday 14th August it stood at 79,531. Although our courts are open again, they are still running at very low capacity in their socially distanced format. Twitter is full of stories of cases which have recently had new trial dates set for 2021 or even 2022. The new Nightingale courts have been roundly criticised and promised longer opening hours with courts sitting well into the evening have, in the main, simply not materialized. Many lawyers have simply not wanted or not been able to adopt a 12-hour working day with all the usual consequences on childcare, family life et cetera.

In the middle of this decidedly odd situation with a government committed to sending more people to prison presiding over the fastest drop in prison numbers in living memory, the Ministry of Justice announced on Wednesday that it was “pausing” its scheme for the temporary release of low-risk prisoners, which was one of the first steps taken as part of a wider strategy to protect the NHS and reduce the virus’ impact on the prison estate. This “pause” will come into effect at the end of August.

The decision was greeted with considerable derision within the penal reform community who pointed out that only a small fraction of the more than 4000 individuals that the MoJ had indicated would be eligible for the scheme at its launch had actually been released. The most recent official figure, covering releases up to 7th August, reveals that a total of 275 prisoners have been released under the scheme, with just nine individuals going out through the prison gates in the first week of August.

The MoJ claimed that it had the virus in prisons under control and no longer needed to continue the temporary release programme. Unfortunately for the Department, this announcement was made on the same day that the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, published a new report aggregating inspectors’ findings from the “short scrutiny visits” they had conducted at 35 prisons throughout lockdown. In this report Mr Clarke noted that the continued severe regime restrictions in prisons – at times amounting effectively to solitary confinement – have created “a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently.”

He went on to highlight the difficulties facing children and women in prison in particular, saying that for prisoners who usually benefitted from a range of specialist support services provided by external providers, the absence of these services was extremely damaging.

“For these prisoners, the long hours of lock up were compounded by the sudden withdrawal of services on which they depended, and self-harm among prisoners in prisons holding women has remained consistently high throughout the lockdown period.”

Mr Clarke also addressed the nation’s fear that there will be a second spike of coronavirus cases and argued strongly that the prison service must find alternative ways of managing the risk and that simply putting everyone in prison in solitary confinement for long periods was not acceptable. He noted that individual prison governors had developed a range of possible solutions which they have not been allowed to implement by the MoJ and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

It is disappointing that reducing population by the temporary release scheme, obviously the most direct way of reducing overcrowding in our prisons – itself the primary risk factor for the spread of coronavirus - is due to halt at the end of the month.

We will continue to monitor the prison population under coronavirus and keep readers up-to-date with the latest developments.