Briefing: Covid-19 & Prisons

Women in Prison briefing:
Covid-19 and Immediate Planned Release from Prison

Women in Prison are calling on the Government to urgently agree a plan for managing early releases from prison. In addition to those able to be released on Home Detention Curfew (HDC), the plans should include women and should (where an assessment has been made relating to no risk of harm) 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
  • On remand
  • Serving a sentence with six months or less remaining
  • In prison having been recalled for administrative breaches

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, imposing no short sentences of less than 6 months and end the use of remand in custody. This would be in addition to not using powers of recall to prison during this crisis.

This 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. The plan needs to include arrangements for suitable emergency housing, financial support and benefits (e.g. immediate access to universal credit).

Prisons becoming Incubators for Covid-19

Covid-19 spreads quickest in enclosed environments. This combined with chronic understaffing within the prison system and additional staff sicknesses due to self-isolation, lack of access to basic sanitation and health provision that is far below that available in the community,[1] will mean prisons will become incubators of the virus.[2]

The living conditions in prison make it impossible to uphold current government advice on social distancing and isolation to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Ministry of Justice guidance on responding to Covid-19 in prisons states that any prisoner displaying symptoms of the virus should be “placed in protective isolation for 7 days”. The guidance also concurs with nationwide guidance of practicing good hygiene and washing hands for 20 seconds more frequently. However, this guidance does not account for the barriers to practicing good hygiene and being able to self-isolate and implement social distancing in a prison environment.  In prison, cells are often shared between two or more people with toilet facilities being located within the cell itself. Laundry and showering areas are shared.

How we respond to the Covid-19 crisis in prisons has vital implications for public health, both inside and outside of prison.  As reported in The Lancet, the outbreak of Covid-19 across the prison estate could overwhelm the sparse health services available within prisons as well as placing additional demand on already at capacity health facilities in the community.  Women in prison have overall poorer health outcomes compared to the general population and are disproportionately affected by underlying health conditions This includes health conditions relating to problematic substance use e.g. blood borne viruses.  This may result in a higher number of women in prison needing to access urgent intensive medical support, including transfers to outside hospitals which are difficult and resource-intensive to manage and require several members of staff per transfer.

The transient nature of the criminal justice system means that large numbers of women are passing between prison and community each day. The average length of sentences in some prisons is 14 days; 15% of the women’s prison population are on remand[3] and 10% are recalled[4]. In the year leading up to October 2019, 7,206 women were received into prison. Of those, 3,176 were on remand and 2,918 were sentenced to six months or less[5]. Without a drastic change to short sentencing, use of remand and recall it will be impossible to contain the virus within the prison system as women move between the community and prison and within the prison estate.

For the duration of this crisis it is vital that all those in prison are able to make phone calls out of the prison, and where possible (where there are in-cell phones) to receive in-coming calls, including from family and support services.

Access to housing

Access to housing is one of the most pressing issues faced by women released from prison[6]. In 2018, out of 7,745 receptions into women’s prisons in 3,262 instances women were recorded as being of no fixed abode on arrival in prison.[7]

This crisis has exacerbated an already desperate housing crisis with closures of, and additional precautions taken by, housing support and advocacy services, hostels, refuges and local authority housing services following Government advice around social distancing and staff absences.

With this in mind we recommend that:

  • Every woman released from prison needs to have clear housing options in place before release. Women must be provided with an address to their accommodation before they are released and told how long they will be able to live there. Where housing is provided by the Local Authority, phone assessments prior to release should have been undertaken to ensure no woman attends her Local Authority Homeless Person’s Unit without being confirmed eligible for housing support.
  • The government must ensure as a matter of urgency the provision of suitable housing options for all women being released from custody. Depending on local availability and individual need this can include self-contained flats or hostel accommodation or rooms in specialist supported accommodation or refuges. Due to the current risk of virus spreading, all housing options must involve self-contained rooms with own use of a bathroom. The accommodation should be safe, warm and clean.
  • Women released from prison should have access to newly-created sources of stable accommodation. Together with charities like Crisis we support the conversion of hotel rooms into accommodation[8]. As this has already started to be rolled out in London, we would like to see this expand throughout England and Wales to provide the accommodation needed for at-risk groups, particularly women leaving prison.
  • In order to avoid homelessness, women must be guaranteed to stay in their new homes for at least 6-9 months. This will enable women to self-isolate, reducing the risk of spreading the virus and being able to gain an element of stability. The country will be locked-down for at least the next 12 weeks which will mean many support services and council offices being closed. Even when services eventually do return to normal, the process of finding move-on accommodation is time-consuming and difficult.

Access to money or income

Women released from prison face unnecessary hardship through being unable to access the financial support they need to rebuild their lives in the community. Many women leave prison with few possessions, no access to money nor employment. The country-wide shut down will make it extremely difficult for women to access employment on leaving prison.

  • The Prison Discharge Grant must be significantly increased from the current £46 to cover the cost of food and other basic essentials as well as any travel not covered by travel warrants. The grant has been fixed since 1995 and no longer covers the cost of what people need to spend money on when leaving prison.  All women leaving prison should be given the discharge grant, including those on remand, those who have been recalled and those serving sentences under 15 days.
  • Women released from prison should have immediate access to Universal Credit. Applications for Universal Credit take on average 6 weeks to be process. In light of the current crisis, the government must implement a fast-tracking process so that anyone facing destitution can access support in a much shorter time. Before women are released from prison, their application should be started and processed so that they can access support. This is currently not the case and many women are forced into destitution when leaving prison. Women who are being released more urgently must be informed of their right to advance payments to cover their living costs until their Universal Credit payments are processed. Every person released from prison will need immediate access to these funds.
  • Many women in prison do not have ID documents needed for a range of appointments and support such as setting up a bank account. Where time allows, prisons should facilitate the acquisition of birth certificates for women nearing release and the Ministry of Justice should fund this as a matter of routine. In addition, we suggest that women can keep their prison ID cards on release and that Prison Release Documents and prison ID cards are viewed as formal identification with services such as Local Authorities and Job Centres.  

Access to support on release

  • The Ministry of Justice needs to work with the CRC, NPS and charities working in the community to ensure through the gate support for every woman leaving prison. The exact nature of through the gate support varies due to individual need but often includes a range of stakeholders including prison, probation, substance misuse services, mental health teams, domestic abuse services, social services and/or housing providers. Multi-agency partnership work also often includes voluntary sector support agencies such as criminal justice charities or women’s centres who support women to attend a range of appointments with other stakeholders, set up benefits, register with a GP and/or access housing.
  • Prisons must ensure all women are released with sufficient medication and scripts. Where appropriate and safe to do so, larger quantities than usual should be considered given the current problems with stockpiling of medication.
  • Prisons must ensure all women are signed up with a GP in their local area. In those cases where there is not enough time to ensure women are signed up with a GP, women should be given details of clinics that accept walk-ins. They should also be made aware that they are not required to present ID in order to access medical care.
  • Women should be provided with food and sanitation parcels on release as the panic buying that is taking place across the country may make it difficult for them to access basic items.
  • Given the lack of public transport and guidance on social distancing during the crisis, all women released from prison need to be transported to their home area unless they have a friend or relative who is able to collect them.
  • All those leaving prison should be provided with a basic mobile phone and credit to enable them to stay in touch with key services.
  • All charities providing support to those leaving prison need emergency relief funding from government so that they can continue to carry out their vital work, pay their key workers and fund any additional expenditure arising during the crisis.     
 

[1] Davies, M et.al. (2020) Locked out? Prisoners’ use of hospital care, Nuffield Trust

[2] Kinner, SA et.al (2020) Prisons and custodial settings are part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19, Lancet, published online March 17 2020

[3] Ministry of Justice Offender Management Statistics Quarterly, Prison population 31 December 2019

[4] ibid

[5] Ministry of Justice Offender Management Statistics Quarterly, Prison receptions July to September 2019

[6] Baroness Corston (2007) A Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System,