On Monday 23rd March the UK went into lockdown and as of Tuesday 24th March, prisons were on lockdown too. For the general public, this means we may only leave our homes for a limited few reasons, but for those in prisons, the repercussions go much further. They will be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day with no social visits, no education and a limited use of phones and showers.
How can they practice 'social distancing' when prisons are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe? Self-isolation is impossible if you have to share a cell. In other parts of the world, governments that imposed similar measures on their prison populations experienced riots and some people even escaped (The Guardian, 2020). There have already been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in UK prisons and that doesn't account for the many inmates who are displaying symptoms and the staff who travel in and out of prison every day. An inmate at HMP Littlehey became the first to die from the virus on Sunday 22nd March, with a second death at HMP Manchester on Thursday 26th March (Metro, 2020). It is clear now, more than ever, that in order to protect health and life, the government must release people from prison and allow them to isolate at home.
Coronavirus does not discriminate between people. We are all at risk of catching the disease. However, access to adequate health care can be the difference between life and death. Requests for medical attention are frequently ignored in prisons, resulting in prolonged suffering and sometimes even fatalities. Research by the charity Appeal, showed that as much as 15% of the prison population may have respiratory conditions (Appeal, 2020).
We know that pregnant women are a particularly vulnerable group to the virus. In September 2019, a newborn baby died at HMP Bronzefield in a harrowing case of neglect. This death could possibly have been prevented if the mother had been able to attend hospital, rather than going through labour on her own in her cell (The Guardian, 2019). In the UK we have access to free healthcare, yet prison populations are frequently deprioritised, despite often having greater need. The government's proposition to protect the health and life of the most vulnerable throughout this crisis must extend to those in prison.
Campaign groups, such as the Prisoners' Advice Service, have issued statements calling on the government to release those that are considered 'low risk' from prison. On the PAS website, a statement reads,
"PAS is calling on the government to assist in slowing down the crisis by releasing the following groups of prisoners:
1. Everybody aged over 75, no matter what their conviction.
2. Those over 50 convicted of non-violent/sex crimes.
3. People held under immigration detention powers, whether in prison or detention centres.
4. All those who have under a year of their sentence left to serve.
5. All prisoners with physical disabilities.
6. People awaiting extradition.
7. IPP prisoners whose tariffs have expired." (Prisoners' Advice Service, 2020)
While this call to release 'low risk' inmates is very welcome, it is also important to recognise that risk assessments conducted as part of the parole process are highly subjective. Positioning prisoners as 'risks to be managed' rather than human beings with complex needs, will leave many people behind. In particular, Black people experiencing distress are far more likely to be perceived as aggressive, therefore more 'high risk', than their white counterparts. Ferreira-Borges, the WHO’s prison expert said, "non-custodial measures should be considered at all stages of the criminal justice system" (The Guardian, 2020). The government must take the necessary action to slow the spread of coronavirus. This should mean focusing on what tangible support is needed to ensure more people can settle into healthy lives outside of prison, rather than abstract, preconceived notions of 'risk' and 'risk management'.
There is a communal crisis of mental health running parallel to the coronavirus crisis. This is concentrated in prisons, where even phone calls to loved ones are often not possible. The Ministry of Justice have said that 55 prisons across England and Wales will be given 900 phones to stay in touch with loved ones, but that these will be handed out to 'risk-assessed prisoners on a temporary basis' (BBC News, 2020). For prison inmates, the nature of their circumstances are already uncertain and hope for the future is nothing short of a lifeline. While these 900 phones are a step in the right direction, there are currently 83,430 people in prison in England and Wales (ibid). This means tens of thousands of people will be left without. If the government do not take action to release people from prison now, it will only be a matter of time before we see a steep increase in deaths by suicide and self-harm across the prison estate, as well as from the virus itself.
Amongst all the devastation that coronavirus is causing, it has shown us that as a society, we are all interdependent. There is a big difference between 'social distancing' and 'physical distancing.' Feeling socially connected could not be more important right now. It is frequently the most marginalised, including incarcerated populations, who are on the harshest receiving end of hostile government policies. Over the last few weeks, the government has had no choice but to re-prioritise resources - funding the welfare state and increasing access to basic necessities such as housing for the homeless. This serves as a reminder of just how possible the world we want to see actually is. Those that are in prison are part of our social fabric and they must not be forgotten. Many environmental campaigners have spoken of how the earth is healing itself. Let this global public health crisis be an opportunity to release people from prison, so that individuals, families and communities may heal themselves too. References APPEAL, 2020. Press Release: Criminal Justice Charity Calls For Urgent Release Of Prisoners To Prevent Life Sentences Turning Into Death Sentences — APPEAL. [online] APPEAL. Available at: <http://appeal.org.uk/news/2020/3/18/press-release-criminal-justice-charity-calls-for-urgent-release-of-prisoners-to-prevent-life-sentences-turning-into-death-sentences> [Accessed 31 March 2020]. BBC News, 2020. Inmates Could Be Freed To Ease Virus Jail Pressures. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52029581> [Accessed 31 March 2020]. Metro, 2020. Second UK Prisoner Dies After Contracting Coronavirus While Inside | Metro News. [online] Metro.co.uk. Available at: <https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/26/second-uk-prisoner-dies-contracting-coronavirus-inside-12459973/> [Accessed 31 March 2020]. Prisoners' Advice Service, 2020. Prisoners’ Advice Service. [online] Prisoners’ Advice Service. Available at: <http://www.prisonersadvice.org.uk/> [Accessed 31 March 2020]. The Guardian, 2020. 'Come Back Monday, OK?' Hundreds Of Prisoners Escape In Brazil Amid Covid-19 Anger. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/come-back-monday-ok-hundreds-of-prisoners-escape-in-brazil-amid-covid-19-anger> [Accessed 31 March 2020]. The Guardian, 2020. 'Everyone Will Be Contaminated': Prisons Face Strict Coronavirus Controls. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/23/everyone-will-be-contaminated-prisons-face-strict-coronavirus-controls> [Accessed 31 March 2020].
The Guardian, 2020.Revealed: Concerns Over String Of Incidents At UK Prison Where Baby Died. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/22/hmp-bronzefield-baby-death-prison-births> [Accessed 31 March 2020].