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'Time is short' for Government to protect prisoners from Covid-19

Campaigners are calling for prisoners to be temporarily released and short-term sentences to be scrapped to protect those behind bars as well as stopping them being released on to the streets

Prison campaigners are calling for urgent Government measures to prevent prisoners from coronavirus after warning that the “bold action” on show elsewhere is nowhere to be seen in the justice system.

Yesterday, the Howard League for Penal Reform (HL) and the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) penned an open letter to the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland pleading with him to “listen to the science” and release vulnerable low-risk prisoners from behind bars.

So far, 69 pregnant women and women with babies have been released early but the Ministry of Justice have confirmed that there are “no plans to end short-term sentences”.

The latter is a demand also made yesterday by Revolving Doors. They argued that prisoners serving less than six months make up almost half the prison population with 44,000-plus sentences of this duration handed out last year. Revolving Doors also fear that prisoners could find themselves on the streets after release, as was the case for a quarter of the people serving under six months last year. All rough sleepers are supposed to be housed in hotels and other accommodation for their protection from Covid-19.

And stopping the churn of vulnerable people heading in and out of prison should be the aim to stop the spread of the virus.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, as of 5pm on Tuesday 31 March, 69 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus across 25 prisons. Fourteen prison staff, working in eight different prisons, and four Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS) staff have also tested positive. Three people in prison have died.

The open letter from HL and PRT was published alongside a report from Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which warned that the risk of exposure to the virus to prisoners and staff is “far, far greater” than the risks to individuals in the wider community.

He also added that social distancing and personal infection control measures are “almost impossible” in prisons. It recommends that authorities “should consider alternative options to incarceration where feasible”.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The government is in a race against time to curb the spread of coronavirus in prisons and protect the wider public.

“Many more lives will be lost unless urgent action is taken to reduce the number of people behind bars.

“We understand that advice on the impact of this disease within the prison system has been presented to the Prime Minister, and we ask that this is published.”

The charities have also warned that prison staff absences are a threat to public safety and are in conversation with the Justice Secretary on how to protect prisoners going forward.

Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust director, added: “All we are asking is that the government follow the science. That makes it very clear that reducing the number of people in prison is crucial to controlling the spread of infection, not just in prisons but in the communities to which prisoners return on release and staff return every day.

“Virtually every area of government is taking decisive, bold action to protect the public by following the science – there can be no excuse not to do the same in prisons.

“Time is short, and ministers are already behind the curve. Further delay will cause avoidable deaths amongst prisoners, prison staff and those closest to them.”

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