Incarceration and COVID-19: what the pandemic has revealed about the UK prison system

Lockdown restrictions have proved insufferable for people across the country, with many members of the public feeling imprisoned in their own homes – but what about those who are, in fact, in prison or awaiting trial? As part of lockdown measures, inmates now receive less than one hour a day spent out of their cells and all visitation rights are suspended.

The coronavirus outbreak has revealed the fundamental problems for what can be considered our neglected prison population. Yet it should not take a global pandemic to recognise that the UK justice system is flawed.

Lockdown on communication

Lockdown has offered us a new abundance of free time. For most people, this brings the freedom of being able to reach out to loved ones whenever compensating for their inability to meet wherever. But many will agree that a conversation, catch up, or quality family time is not the same when practised virtually.

The same freedom is not awarded to convicts. For those incarcerated, all contact with the outside world has translated into limited phone calls, establishing an unchallenged lockdown on communication with loved ones.

Director of Prisoners’ Advice Service Lubia Begum told Hackney Citizen “this is having a terrible toll on prisoners’ physical and mental health, and that of those trying their best to support them from the outside.”

This era of social distancing proves unjust to those whose access to technology is limited, eroding what is barely a humane approach to convicts in the best of times.

Begum also acknowledged “the most basic physical interactions between mothers and their children are now ruled out and replaced by limited, sporadic telephone contact”, revealing a repercussion that compromises the humanity of those on the inside and the failure of a government to respond compassionately.

Mothers in prison

On 27th March 2020, just four days the government implemented lockdown measures in the UK, the number of women incarcerated in England and Wales was 3,641. Of these, 61% of women in prisons had children under the age of 18.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, a London-based charity investigating the UK prison system and advocating for change, estimates that more than 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by incarceration each year. Of those, only 9% are cared for by fathers in their mothers’ absence.

The fact that prisons do not regularly record whether people have children under the age of 18 represents the government’s complete failure to respond compassionately to women in prison. Resigned to the periphery of those in authority even during more normal times, these children must now contend with an unprecedented health crisis affecting the most vulnerable in society.

At the end of March, the government announced that pregnant women would be temporarily released from prison, as the daily number of deaths from COVID-19 in the UK almost doubled. Given that government advice states that expecting mothers should self-isolate for at least 12 weeks, lying in the most vulnerable category for COVID-19, it seemed a vital step in protecting some of the most vulnerable of our prison population.

Estimates stand that around 600 pregnant women are held in prisons in England and Wales every year. As of 12th May, only 21 have been released.

Overcapacity creates “perfect COVID-19 storm”

Due to grave overcapacity highlighted by the pandemic, prisons are a “petri-dish” for COVID-19. Estimates suggest that the global prison population is at 11 million. Overcapacity is a global problem with over 124 prisons worldwide exceeding their maximum occupancy rates. 

The UK’s prison overcapacity average is 107%. What may seem like a small statistic, this seven per cent translates to 4,650 men and women held above the level of safety in the UK prison system.

The Howard League identifies HMP Durham as the most overcrowded in Britain, functioning at 168% overcapacity. People in such overpopulated environments suffer most during the pandemic, given most difficulty lies in finding areas where prisoners can self-isolate.

Early April saw the Ministry of Justice announce up to 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales be released in an attempt to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis in jails. This week recorded only 55 released since the government announced the scheme.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that “Tens of thousands of people in prison are being held in overcrowded conditions or extreme isolation. It is neither humane nor sustainable, and it is taking its toll.

“We need to see a clear plan out of mass solitary confinement, to save lives and give purpose.”

Problems of limited space extend to the administration of justice where two courts are required for trials to take place. The limited number of courtrooms available would not be able to support the two-metre guidelines needed to ensure the safety of those involved. David Lammy suggests co-opting university buildings to be temporary courts, utilising space that would otherwise be empty until at least late autumn. Instead, courts have moved online.

Online administration of justice

Needless to say that virtual trials bring inevitable disadvantages. Online courts rely on technology and internet access, putting digitally-excluded defendants at a disadvantage.

A survey by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory reported many lawyers and judges find it “extremely difficult to conduct hearings with the level of empathy and humanity” required. Such findings suggest that judges may administer unrealistic or harsher sentences in the absence of a face-to-face trial.

The Howard League charity finds “poor mental health, abuse and neglect at an early age” are, among others, the primary causes of crime. Prison conditions created by the UK justice system replicate the conditions needed to “create” a criminal.

Surging figures of reoffending reflect its role in perpetuating rather than preventing crime. 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release.

On 28th May, The Guardian reported 16 people had committed suicide behind bars since lockdown began. Five of which were committed in just six days. It has revealed government willingness to compromise the humanity of those on the inside.

How COVID-19 revealed the flaws in our justice system

The pandemic has revealed flaws in our justice system that existed before the outbreak of COVID-19. The crisis calls for reducing overcrowding and finding alternatives to incarceration.

When a person is convicted, their sentence does not include being left vulnerable to a deadly disease. Those behind bars should not be abandoned by the government when they need them the most. The public deserves a justice system that tackles the underlying causes of crime and invests in prevention rather than punishment. In its darkest times, the UK must not neglect its prison population.

As of 28th May, 22 prisoners and nine staff across the country are known to have died of the novel coronavirus. 

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