30 March 2020

Prisoner release is the best way to avert a Covid catastrophe in our jails


No Justice Secretary, least of all a Conservative one, wants to be in a position where they must authorise the early release of jailed criminals. Robert Buckland has not ruled out doing so, but is apparently resistant to throwing open the prison gates as a way of easing the threat from coronavirus.

Concerns about public reaction and confidence are completely understandable in this context. They are also misplaced.

Some form of executive release is not only rational, it will become inevitable as the virus overwhelms the capacity of staff to safely contain sickness and risk. There is a small and closing window of opportunity to act now to create the headroom necessary to allow the prison service to keep its corporate head above the waves and keep us all safe.

Put simply, the service cannot take “robust action” to isolate prisoners and manage a restive population with front line staff sickness levels as they are now.

Ten days ago, the troubled new Welsh super-prison HMP Berwyn had 75 staff off sick an self-isolating with suspected coronavirus. This was a prison already described by judges and inspectors as “in crisis” last November due to problems with drugs and violence. I’m not sure if I would take the Ministry of Justice’s “well established” plans to deal with this entirely unprecedented crisis to the bank right now. According to the House of Commons  Justice Select Committee, the whole prison system was already in “an appalling state of crisis” in October last year, well before anyone had heard of Covid-19.

Berwyn is just one of a growing number of prisons where the virus is now present or suspected, scything staff numbers and causing huge anxiety for them, their families and the prisoners they are supposed to be looking after. Last Wednesday it was revealed that four prison officers had tested positive for the virus in four separate establishments. A further 19 offenders had tested positive for Covid-19 in 10 jails. Parliament has been told that that 10% of available prison staff – around 3,500 – were at home self-isolating last week.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to practise meaningful social distancing and even adequate hygiene in prisons, especially our often squalid, overcrowded local prisons, with their huge churn of potentially infected individuals. In HMP Wandsworth, one of our most overcrowded local prisons, throughput means on average 50 prisoners a week enter the facility and 100 are discharged – not counting those allocated to other prisons or the daily interactions of 360 staff. Imagine Wandsworth was a village of 1,877 with this amount of movement in ‘lockdown’ and you start to see the scale of the problem.

The prison system has three urgent and inter-related challenges –  isolating sick prisoners, maintaining order and security, and protecting staff. There will be no way to maintain them all without the release of a significant number of prisoners. This has definite implications for public confidence in the justice system but these are overplayed and secondary to the breakdown of order that is just around the corner if prisons fall over because there are not enough staff to guarantee ‘life services.’

Moreover, some form of executive release – probably an extended ‘house arrest’ early release scheme for prisoners coming to the end of their sentence – was on the cards even without the arrival of coronavirus. Ministers were looking at modelling for an extension of the scheme, known as Home Detention Curfew, because the rising numbers in custody threatened to exceed operational capacity. In January we were only a large jail’s capacity away from the prison service going ‘bust’ and having to use police cells.

It’s worth remember that the majority of Britain’s prisoners do not present much danger to the public. According to the Prison Reform Trust, of the 59,000 people handed a jail sentence in 2018, 69% had committed a non-violent offence and 46% were sentenced to six months or less. This is decent mathematics for the current extraordinary situation. Instead of contemplating the repurposing of existing accommodation as prisons and spreading staff ever more thinly, Robert Buckland should be announcing carefully controlled and managed early release of non-violent prisoners, pregnant women and those over 70 to create some breathing space for a frightened and harried workforce, shorn of experienced colleagues and doing their best in dreadful circumstances.

As for managing prisoners after release, a reserve of retired probation staff could be sought (without much bureaucracy, please) to provide additional community supervision and assurance for these offenders and keep them safe. This would allow the consolidation of the prison estate to ease the perils pf overcrowding and focus on maintaining decent regimes and security everywhere else, including some of our remote prisons that hold convicted terrorists and other extremely dangerous offenders.

Emptying out a medium-sized prison worth of space would also allow the creation of a secure isolation, care and treatment centre for prisoners who have tested positive for Covid19 and who are currently held in isolation in what may soon be untenable locations and numbers. Focusing on one site would allow healthcare and logistical resources to be concentrated and provide for vital additional protection and testing for staff.

Prisons are only properly staffed for a small number of escorted absences during any working day. They also have disproportionate numbers of people in them with compromised immune systems and long-term health problems. The prospect of large numbers of seriously ill prisoners filling brutally stretched NHS hospitals nationwide – coupled with the collapse of prison security as escorting staff are tied up and exposed in hospitals – is absolutely real and very close

Releasing a significant number of low risk, non-violent prisoners back to their homes with electronic monitoring, curfews and community supervision is now the humane and pragmatic thing to do. It also protects our hidden emergency front line service – the uniformed prison officers and Governors who are doing such an amazing job in holding the line. But they can’t be asked or expected to survive without further help.

Prisoners perceive themselves – probably accurately – to be at the back of the queue when it comes to public sympathy and resources. This coupled with helplessness, poor communications and struggling staff is a potent combination for widespread disorder. Other factors complicate this fiendishly difficult conundrum. The supply of drugs has likely dried up as the restrictions lock down prisons and prisoners. But that won’t dampen demand or the violence that goes with a buoyant drugs economy.

Prisoners are allowed out to exercise, but what happens if they refuse to be locked back up again because they can’t or won’t trust authority to keep them back in their cells safely? Opportunists abound in prisons, even in the worst of times, but they are now joined by large numbers of scared prisoners with legitimate anxieties and grievances.

We have seen this already in violent and deadly protests from Italy to Colombia. From Iran to Iowa, prison authorities are putting pragmatism before politics. Almost all prison commentators I know, including those I wouldn’t usually trust to tell me what time it is, concur. It’s time to carefully open the prison gates before the hinges come off.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.