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The situation in prisons

A press release from the Ministry of Justice on the 28 April 2020 said that “jails are successfully limiting deaths and the transmission of the virus within the estate”.

Public Health England (PHE) reported on 24 April 2020 that data it had collected “suggests that the ‘explosive outbreaks’ of COVID19 which were feared at the beginning of the pandemic wave are not being seen. Instead, there is evidence of containment of outbreak”.

As of 12 May, 404 cases had been confirmed amongst prisoners. 21 prisoners and 7 members of prison staff had died.

Concerns are now being raised about how purposeful and rehabilitative activities can be resumed within prisons, particularly in light of PHE’s assessment of risks of large outbreaks remaining in the absence of a vaccine or treatment.  

Measures being taken

Within prisons, restrictions on movements of prisoners have been put in place. The Justice Secretary has said efforts are being made within the prison estate to separate as many people as possible and create different cohorts of prisoners, so that, for example, new prisoners are not mixed with the existing population and that those who are particularly vulnerable, some of whom were convicted of serious and grave offences, are safe.

Prisoners are spending more time in cells, gyms are closed, and non-essential work has been cancelled. The Chief Inspector of Prisons described the extreme restrictions for prisoners in local prisons visited by inspectors:

The vast majority were locked up for nearly the whole day with usually no more than half an hour out of their cells.

On 24 March 2020 all visits to prisons were suspended. A page Coronavirus (COVID-19) and prisons provides guidance for families and friends of those in prison.

The Ministry of Justice has been “working to identify publicly owned sites that could be used to house temporary prison accommodation to ease pressure on the permanent estate, further separate prisoners and reduce the spread of the virus”. The Ministry announced on 9 April that work to install 500 temporary, single occupancy cells within the existing, secure, prison estate had begun. On 29 April the Ministry announced that the recently closed Medway Secure Training Centre, would be temporarily reopened as an annex to nearby HMP Rochester, housing up to 70 category D adult prisoners.

Early release for some prisoners

On 31 March 2020 the Government announced that pregnant women and prisoners with their children in Mother and Baby Units would be temporarily released from prison where they were assessed not to pose a high risk of harm to the public. As at 12 May 2020, 21 pregnant women had been released. 

On 4 April 2020 the Government announced that risk-assessed prisoners who are within two months of their release date will be temporarily released. A press release said:

  • Selected low-risk offenders, within weeks of their release dates, will be electronically tagged and temporarily released on licence in stages
  • Offenders can be recalled at the first sign of concern
  • Violent and sexual offenders and those of security concern will not be considered

The Government estimated that up to 4000 prisoners would be eligible for the scheme.

The measures for temporary early release were welcomed, including by the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform. However, alarm has been growing about the delay in releasing prisoners and the low numbers released. On 27 April the Justice Secretary said he admitted progress had been careful and slow. He said 33 prisoners had been released altogether, including pregnant women. On 12 May the Prisons Minister, Lucy Frazer, told the Justice Committee that 81 prisoners had been released early during lockdown. Of these 81 prisoners, 55 were released on the temporary release scheme, 21 were pregnant women and 5 were released on compassionate grounds.

Calls for further action

There have been calls to reduce the number of people being sent or returned to prison. The Prison Reform Trust has said that alongside releases, it is vital that “the flow of people into prisons is also drastically reduced”.

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