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April 2nd 2020

Civil Liberties

Government must show same commitment to keeping prisoners and staff safe from COVID-19 as all others

Terry Wilcox

Terry Wilcox

Solicitor, Civil Liberties

Government must show same commitment to keeping prisoners and staff safe from COVID-19 as all others

The ongoing rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus is currently stretching our society and public bodies to their very limit, with the focus of all efforts of course being on protecting life.

The ongoing rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus is currently stretching our society and public bodies to their very limit, with the focus of all efforts of course being on protecting life.

The impact has been felt by us all as we’ve been told to stay at home, follow the guidance with regards to social distancing and self-isolate to protect others should we show any sign of the well-documented symptoms.

But what about the society many of us don’t’ see – those serving time in our under-resourced and over-crowded prisons and detention centres?

We are all aware that for many years the prison estate in England and Wales has been under resourced. This has led to conditions described by Prison Inspectors as being deeply troubling, with far too many jails having appalling living conditions.

In the current crisis, claims have already been made that the virus is well established in various prisons and epidemiologists have estimated that up to 1% of people in prison could die if the coronavirus spreads across the estate, resulting in 800 deaths.

Whatever your own individual thoughts on those currently serving time for offending – no matter what the crime – the law with regards their rights is clear. Our Government owes the same duty of care to those in custody as it does everybody else in this crisis.

That means it must do all in its power to protect the lives of detainees, and of course prison staff.

The Government must also expect the same scrutiny and investigation should there be avoidable deaths in prisons and detention centres though continued potential exposure to the virus and risk, or through a lack of access to healthcare, for both staff and prisoners.

Release of pregnant women is first step in reducing risk

Under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, which protects the right to life, the Government is obliged to protect the lives of those who are detained from any foreseeable danger – and COVID-19 is now just that.

We are, of course, understanding of the difficulties faced.

Victorian prisons do not lend themselves to single occupancy and so social distancing and isolation will, at present, be virtually impossible in many.

Whilst social distancing has quickly become the new norm on the outside world, it is almost impossible to enforce behind the prison walls and overcrowding can only spread the problem, exacerbated by a lack of testing and no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff to carry out their duties.

The situation is certainly worsening and we have now had three confirmed deaths from coronavirus in UK prisons, the latest being 77-year-old man with underlying health conditions.

It is with this in mind that the decision has been taken to temporarily release pregnant women currently in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public, to protect them and their unborn children.

Conditions of their release will mean they face being immediately recalled to prison for any breach or further offending, and prison governors will only be able to grant their release once they pass a risk assessment and suitable accommodation is found. Prisoners in Mother and Baby Units meeting the same risk assessment will also be released with their children.

This is a step which would have been almost unthinkable just a matter of weeks ago, but as we all know, the world has rapidly changed. The question now is, what next?

Calls made for release on non-violent and ‘low risk’ prisoners

Many people are understandably deeply concerned about the wellbeing and safety of friends and family held in prisons or detention centres.

Calls have already been made in some quarters for the temporary or early release of prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, those convicted of non-violent offences, on remand and charged with non-violent offences, those aged over 70, prisoners with pre-existing serious health conditions and those in minimum security open prisons.

Inquest, the charity which supports families when investigating deaths involving state agencies, says measures must be introduced now to ‘rapidly decrease populations’ across some detention settings.

It has suggested the release of people in immigration detention centres, the closure of child prisons as soon as practicable and the ‘dramatic reduction’ of prisoner numbers by releasing those who can be ‘safely and reasonably.’

Of course, the early release of prisoners goes against what the justice system stands for and would no doubt cause understandable distress to victims and their families.

However, it is something which has to be considered as without a radical and swift action plan, the impact of this virus on detention settings could prove catastrophic.

As I said at the beginning, the priority is protecting life.

Prison staff and prisoners need help and support now if we are to avoid the collapse of the prison system, and avoid many preventable deaths.

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