COVID-19 / Coronavirus in prisons: is the government doing enough?
Is the government doing enough to ensure the safety of prisoners during this pandemic?
On 4th April, the government announced the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme (ECTR) to facilitate the release of up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners who are within two months of their release date to help prisons deal with the coronavirus outbreak. However, only 33 inmates had been released as of 27th April despite the Prison Governors’ Association’s call for a population reduction of 15,000. The programme experienced further challenges as six inmates were mistakenly freed from prison under the government’s temporary release scheme. Although the men returned compliantly and the mistaken releases were attributed to an administration error, this prompted the programme to be suspended temporarily.
During this public health crisis, the State must diligently protect inmates across the UK from the spread of COVID-19 to comply with its duty under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The overcrowded nature of the prison system in England and Wales, which currently has a population of over 85,000, provides the potential conditions for a coronavirus outbreak. According to the Ministry of Justice (“MOJ”), as of 26th April, 324 prisoners have tested positive for C-19 resulting in 15 fatalities across 62 prisons. The MOJ noted that this figure includes 293 prison staff who have contracted the virus.
Experts have issued warnings that failure to protect the most vulnerable inmates could result in more than 800 avoidable deaths. While the government has issued guidance on how to reduce the spread of coronavirus in prisons (including, for example, the implementing of protective isolation for inmates displaying COVID-19 symptoms), many organisations are calling for stronger and more practical measures to be implemented to minimise the risk of inmates contracting COVID-19. These measures include the releasing of low risk inmates, the moving of the most vulnerable prisoners to less-crowded parts of the prison system and the reducing of mixing among prisoners.
Recent reports have shown that, contrary to expert medical advice, many prison cells continue to contain two or more inmates, further establishing prisons as a hotspot for the rapid spread of the virus. A report from the National Audit Office found that prisoners are being held in unsafe and crowded conditions with many inmates being unable to access services they require.
On 17th April, the Howard League for Penal Reform (“HLPR”) and the Prison Reform Trust (“PRT”) sent a letter before claim to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland. The letter detailed a proposed application for judicial review over the Secretary of State’s alleged failure to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic in prisons. The letter before claim criticised the government’s rate of prisoner releases for being too slow and too limited to make any substantial difference to the prison population. The government issued a response to the letter before claim on 28th April, providing clarification of its plans to manage to pandemic with the prison system. Both the HLPR and PRT will continue to monitor the situation, but have concluded that it is not necessary to proceed to a judicial review at this stage.
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