Coronavirus in prisons: Should inmates be released to stop the spread?

Coronavirus in prisons: Should inmates be released to stop the spread?

In the current climate of social lockdown, how should the government tackle the environments in which social distancing is not possible? BCL’s Bethan Cowlam discusses Coronavirus’s impact on the UK prison system.

In the wake of the first death of a British inmate who had contracted coronavirus at HMP Littlehey, the government updated its guidance for prisons in England and Wales. They outlined measures of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and protective isolation and ‘cohorting’ (the gathering of potentially infected individuals into a certain area) of inmates. The guidance also states that only severely unwell individuals should be transferred to a healthcare facility; those who are clinically well enough to remain in prison should do so.

Until very recently, there had been no indication from the government that any inmates were to be granted temporary / early release or bail on the grounds of the virus. It was well publicised that a court refused a bail application from Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is residing in HMP Belmarsh, despite the representations made about his vulnerability to contracting the virus.

This changed on Tuesday (31 March) with the following announcement from the government:

Pregnant women in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public will be temporarily released from prison within days to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus. Prisoners in Mother and Baby Units meeting the same risk assessment will also be released with their children…

Those who will be released will be assessed before they leave prison to ensure they are a low risk to the public. They will also be subject to licence conditions, including a requirement to stay at home, and wear an electronic tag, where appropriate. They can be immediately recalled to prison for breaching these conditions or committing further offences.”

There are 35 pregnant prisoners and 34 in Mother and Baby Units in England and Wales, all of whom will be assessed for release. Presumably, the next step is to extend this policy to others at particular risk from the virus, such as elderly inmates and those with pre-existing health conditions, but it is understandable that the government has not been quick to turn to this as a solution.

Even in times of emergency (arguably even more so), the principles of the justice system need to be upheld and the interests of victims of crime and their families still need to be considered. It is also necessary to question the practicalities for the already understaffed police and probation services. The National Probation Service will need to monitor and supervise those who are released, especially considering releases will almost certainly be subject to Home Detention Curfews. It also follows that large-scale early release may mean that more individuals are released before they have been properly rehabilitated, increasing the likelihood of breach of licence conditions and / or re-offending. The police will be required to arrest and investigate when necessary, adding pressure when they are already stretching to enforce societal lockdown.

Despite the risks, many countries have already taken more extensive action in their prisons by authorising the release of some non-violent inmates, including Iran, Canada and Germany. This has been brought closer to home by Northern Ireland announcing that they will temporarily release up to 10% of their prison population; although their prisons currently remain free of the virus, their rationale is based on the inevitable spread and threatened staffing levels. This has undoubtedly increased the pressure on our government to take similar steps, perhaps prompting Tuesday’s announcement.

The number of cases of coronavirus is increasing rapidly, the most recent figures showing 69 cases across 25 prisons in England and Wales. In overcrowded institutions with a dwindling support staff further spread is inevitable, and it’s likely that the release of more non-dangerous offenders will soon be the government’s only option.


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Bethan Cowlam is a trainee solicitor, currently specialising in serious and general crime. Her prior experience includes regulatory investigations and financial crime.