As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world’s population, countries are faced with the difficult task of managing potential and actual outbreaks within society’s most confined spaces – prisons. I am currently based in Birmingham, having had Easter my vacation in Cyprus cancelled due to the pandemic, and following prison-related developments from my small city-centre apartment.
The response of England and Wales has been marred by confusion, mixed messages, and a marked gulf between political rhetoric and practice. It was originally proposed that some pregnant women and women with babies would be released. Out of potentially 70, only 6 were released according to the latest official evidence given by Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State for Justice on the 7th of April. A few weeks later, during a House of Lord debate on the 23rd of April, the number of pregnant women released was given as 17 – a slight increase only.
The government also proposed that 4000 low-risk people from the general prison population would be released temporarily via a new scheme. A very small number of low-risk people were released but six were swiftly recalled, as their release was apparently due to an administrative error. The scheme was summarily halted after the error was identified. The scheme was due to restart, but I am unable to find any official information about whether it has although Sky News reported that it had. Indeed, to date only 40 people have been released from prison. In any case, 4000 does not seem to be an adequate number as the Prison Governors Association has announced that between 10000 and 15000 people need to be released to remove the need to share cells and ensure adequate social isolation. The early release rules have been criticised for being overly restrictive – and a recent legal challenge led by the Howard League for Penal Reform and Prison Reform Trust was only dropped because the Ministry of Justice clarified these rules. It should not, of course, take the threat of judicial review for critically important rules to be clarified.
There has also been no clear, reliable information about the numbers of individuals infected, including people in prison and staff. This is in part because of the poor testing practices, whereby people are only tested upon admission to hospital. We know that infection has been identified in over half of all prisons in England Wales, but the rate is likely to be significantly higher due to the issues identified above. It now falls to individual prison Twitter accounts to send out information about their staff and residents being diagnosed or isolating. The lack of official, regular information has been frustrating for families and friends of people in prison and for academics like myself. We should not have to scramble for reliable and up-to-date information, gleaning pieces from various debates, press releases and other statements – there should be a central government hub of information that is regularly updated. There is a serious risk of misinformation and misleading news reporting otherwise. Whereas countries like Afghanistan and Indonesia have released thousands of prisoners, we have managed less than 100. Decisive, prompt action is needed if lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society are to be saved.