Prisons, Covid-19 and Release

The current situation here and in other countries with Covid-19 suggests that a Government plan for early release from prison and testing pre-release must be developed as a matter of extreme urgency and rolled out. The vast majority of women in prison present no risk to the public. In addition to those able to be released on Home Detention Curfew (HDC), which we know is already being addressed, this plan should prioritise those who are:     

  • Pregnant, or mothers and babies on prison Mother and Baby Units
  • Already resettling on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL)
  • Particularly vulnerable to the virus due to age or underlying health conditions
  • In prison having been recalled for administrative breaches
  • On remand
  • Serving a sentence with six months or less remaining

Given these wholly exceptional life-threatening circumstances there also need to be immediate measures taken within the Courts. We should be significantly reducing the use of prison overall for sentencing, no short sentences of less than 6 months and end the use of remand in custody. This would be in addition to probation officers not using powers of recall to prison during this crisis.

This government plan must take account of seriously depleted community-based support for all those leaving prison. We need to ensure vulnerable people are not released homeless or into destitution, or with inadequate support, which would make them more at risk of abuse and exploitation. Emergency planning for this needs to be developed now in collaboration with charities working at the frontline, including women’s centres, domestic violence, housing and substance misuse charities. This will ensure available services (mainly now provided remotely due to public health considerations) are deployed where needed for advice, support and practical help. Preparations need to include arrangements for suitable emergency housing, financial support and benefits (e.g. immediate access to universal credit). All of this planning needs to start now. And it will need to involve those being considered for release and their families.

Within a broader plan for release led by Ministry of Justice, there needs to be a plan specifically for women, addressing the issues, risks and vulnerabilities that they face. Our core intelligence from frontline services is they will be unable to provide services without immediate financial guarantees and support from government. We and partner charities are preparing to support prison releases and resettlement in whatever way we can, including through community-based services like women’s centres, ‘through the gate’ and one-to-one support, albeit for the time being provided remotely by whatever means we can. But we will only be able to do that if we start working together with the Ministry of Justice and across government on a urgent plan without delay. 

Dr Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of national charity Women in Prison says

“The vast majority of women in prison pose no risk to the public. They are usually serving sentences for low level offences, like theft and have short sentences of only a few weeks or months.

“We need to start immediate planning for early release, to make sure we can do it in a safe and well-managed way. Any further delay in taking action could have a catastrophic effect. The starting point must be a plan for release and provision of community-based support for pregnant women and those in prison Mother and Baby Units.

“Together we must act to protect the most vulnerable in all parts of our community, this includes our friends and family in prison.”


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