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Howard League blog · 18 Mar 2020

Coronavirus in prison: Measures that could be considered

I was pleased to see that the government intends to ease prisons by increasing the number of people released on home detention curfew. This is a sensible and safe measure that is administratively efficient and quick to achieve. There are other measures that could be considered to take some of the pressure off prisons. I have written to the Secretary of State for Justice, making these suggestions.

This is important for staff at a time when many prisons are grossly crowded and insanitary. We already know that some officers and prisoners have been diagnosed with coronavirus and the very last thing we want is for prisons to become like 18th-century breeding grounds of disease.

John Howard, the charity’s namesake, did much to improve healthcare inside gaols three centuries ago; this should not be necessary today.

We should be reducing the flow of people into the most stressed prisons and we should be looking to ease people who could be safely released back out into the community.

None of this would require legislation, but it does require leadership and self-control by the courts.


Government could send a message to judges and magistrates that any decision to remand to custody should be subject to anxious scrutiny in light of the virus. Remanded prisoners are often the most volatile and face an uncertain future and so are challenging to manage, requiring skilled staff. They will present problems in dealing with a pandemic if it enters the prison, particularly if the courts are struggling to deal with cases.

It is disappointing that in January the number of children remanded to custody went up from 232 to 264 on the previous month. This is the highest number of remands in any month since April 2015.

In the case of children, the message could be that children should not be remanded unless there are wholly exceptional circumstances. The majority of children who are remanded do not subsequently get a custodial sentence. Should it be absolutely necessary to remand a child to secure custody, children should not be placed in prison service establishments which are unsafe and insanitary.

Short sentences

The churn in the prison population created by short sentences is particularly problematic at this time. Building on the government’s own research that short sentences are counter-productive, it would be timely to send a clear message to judges and magistrates that consideration should be given to avoiding short sentences, particularly for breaches, time in lieu for non-payment of fines and for non-violent and non-sexual offences.

People given short sentences tend to be the homeless and rootless, and may be more prone to communicable diseases, and therefore they increase the risk of coronavirus transmission inside prisons.

Reducing recall to prison

More than 3,500 men and women were recalled to prison for just a few days between July and September 2019 under the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda.

These are not dangerous offenders but people initially sentenced to short prison terms who have now not managed to comply with administrative rules set by the community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) – who are known to be failing to support people released from prison.

Liz Truss, when she was Secretary of State, issued guidance to CRCs and the National Probation Service to avoid these recalls, and this guidance could be strengthened as it seems to have been ignored.

Additional days for breaches of prison discipline

In the last four years, the number of additional days imposed on people in prisons for breaches of prison discipline in England and Wales has more than doubled to 380,169. Scotland does not impose any additional days.

Independent adjudicators follow guidelines issued by the Chief Magistrate, who could issue guidance to avoid imposing them where possible for the time being or suspend them.

Prison governors have the discretion to remit additional days. Some prisoners are only in prison due to serving these extra days and have not been considered for remission. Remission should be considered in all such cases and governors should be directed to remit additional days imposed on all prisoners where it is safe to do so.

Executive release

Parole hearings are going to become increasingly harder to hold as members will be reluctant to travel and may get sick, and prisons could even be on lockdown.

The Secretary of State has the discretion to release almost all determinate prisoners who can be safely released. There is a long history of this provision being used appropriately, though its use has declined in recent years.

The power could be used for those who can be safely released, including those who have been recalled to prison on determinate sentences but have not been convicted of further offences.

Compassionate release

The elderly, the sick and the vulnerable could be offered release under the discretion afforded to the Secretary of State under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Section 36 provides for the release of a prisoner on licence in “exceptional circumstances”.

Consideration could be given to clarifying that the onset of a pandemic described by the Prime Minister as “the worst public health crisis in a generation”, with a high death rate for the older population, may well constitute “exceptional circumstances”.

The prison population is ageing. There are some 1,700 people, mostly men, in prison over the age of 70.

Research from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention shows a coronavirus mortality rate of more than 14 per cent of confirmed cases in people over 80 and 8 per cent of confirmed cases in people over 70.

This is much higher than the overall average death rate of 2 to 3 per cent, and suggests older people are significantly more at risk of death from the virus.  The mortality rate of older people in prison is likely to be even higher.

Existing early release provisions for short-term child prisoners with sentences under four years

Statutory guidance for children being considered for Home Detention Curfew and for early release from Detention and Training Orders creates a presumption in favour of early release in most instances. In certain cases, it is a matter of exceptional circumstances.

Decision-makers should be advised that the pandemic enhances the weight to be applied to the presumption in favour of early release and may well constitute “exceptional circumstances” when considering cases where the presumption does not apply.


Prisoners who have been deemed safe for release by the Parole Board should be released to relieve the stress on the system.

This could affect prisoners whose release has been directed but who are awaiting spaces in approved premises or waiting for 21 days to pass in accordance with the reconsideration mechanisms.  These prisoners have been scrutinised by the Parole Board and deemed safe for release, and a binding direction for release has been issued.

One option would be to reduce the 21-day period to seven days on the basis that the Secretary of State can approach those who are likely to be concerned to see whether there are cogent grounds for review.

Consideration could be given as to what arrangements can be made to increase capacity in approved premises or suitable alternatives, as we have found in our casework that young men are detained unnecessarily in prison awaiting a place in approved premises but in fact could safely – indeed in many cases, more safely – go straight to a supportive family.

Managing licence conditions without requiring face-to-face contact

All licences currently include requirements to attend meetings with probation officers. This requirement should be relaxed and alternative measures such as telephone meetings should be put into place to protect probation staff and prisoners from unnecessary contamination.

An amnesty

In extremis an amnesty could be considered whereby all prisoners serving short sentences of less than a year are released, or people coming towards the end of a longer sentence. Of course, this is a measure that is commonly taken in other countries and is not without precedent in this country.

As I said at the outset, this is primarily aimed at protecting staff, the officers, nurses, probation and administrative staff who are currently being asked to work in the most disgusting and dangerous conditions.

I genuinely do not believe that this would put the public at increased risk and I think that victims of crime would understand that this is the right thing to do to keep us all safe.


  • Lynn Bousfield says:

    My partner had done nearly 3 years when he was released on the 17th December 2020,on a 3 year licence, 7 hrs later probation recalled him back ,he had 2 accommodation,a he could go which was approved by themselves, the morning he left his probation worker rang me to tell my when he gets to me he has to go straight into a hostel which was far away, and after telling him 2 days before that all hostel, a are full,that wasn’t a condition so in my opinion probation are trying to help prisoners they are destroying them,the system is so messed up,they make there own rules up

  • Trish says:

    My son is currently in prison n has corona 20 lads on his wing too. The prison officers and prisoners only started wearing masks last week officers working in kitchens with flu was still working with symptoms till he tested positive for corona feel disgusted they can be treated like that with no one to answer too

  • […] Howard League for Penal Reform also wrote to the Ministry of Justice suggesting actions that could be taken to protect inmates and staff given the “unhygienic” prison […]

  • Elley says:

    And also no staff in my partners prison are sticking to 2 metre rule, not wearing any PPE either. Absolutely outrageous.

  • Elley says:

    My partner and I recieved some great news lastnight and then had it taken away from us. My partner was due out in October but he was approved for tag and curfew on 10th May, he passed all risk assessments etc and has his flat waiting. We were told by probation because he is due out on May 20th he will now fit criteria to be released early because of the COVID-19 situation. He had release papers put through his door lastnight for release on 22nd April. We were so excited, the kids were really excited and for the first time since last july when my 18 year old daughter got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and after my partners 17 year old niece also passed away in Feb, we felt hope. My partner was sent down 2nd July 2019, day before my 18 year old started chemotherapy. I have been struggling with 4 children on my own, keeping my partners flat going and my house and now cant work because I have high risk children, I felt hope he would be home in 2 weeks. The prison are now saying because he was not originally meant to be released until October, he will not be being released early after all until May 20th. He does all the cleaning on the wing, he has just passed his course for level 2 peer mentor for probation, he helps the prison guards with the prisoners that need help, and now he has had the hope he was going to be out in 2 weeks and now that’s been taken away from him in hours of getting papers for 2and April. He is in his cell now really upset, the children and our family are devastated. How can this be allowed to happen. No prisoner should be messed around with their release date. The goverment rules for this early release says “a prisoner will be released early if they are due out in the next 2 months regardless. Now he has been told he is coming home 22nd April, then gets told actually no not til may 20th even though assessments been done nd he has his flat etc and his probation officer is more than happy for him to be released. Please help us as this has broke us now as a family. Have not seen him for a mo th and will now be another 6 weeks instead of the 2 weeks we were told lastnight.

  • Fran says:

    Websites like this one are what keep me going – thank you for caring about our loved ones inside and thoughts going out to everyone who is dealing with this horrible ongoing situation – my son is 22 and has been on remand in a London prison since last September – he has suspected schizophrenia and asthma – before arrest he had been sectioned and was convinced the UK was under a spell and the end of the world was coming – He is unmedicated as does not engage or come out of his cell and we have little contact as he has cut family off saying he is ‘ashamed’ to be inside – I have received a few letters abd amazing drawings but am worried sick – he should be in hospital – there has been one reported case of a PO having cv and Safer Custody are not returning calls – the Chaplain can check but not feedback as so busy and prison operating on reduced staff – low risk prisoners must all be released to ease pressure on staff and remaining prisoners – I did hear they were thinking about transferring some prisoners to Army Barracks – not enough transparency from MoJ and not enough information – stay safe everyone 🌈

  • Katie K says:

    My partners in a Cat C jail hmp Oakwood the Uks largest jail which had its first confirmed case early March and now has many more confirmed cases, he got sentenced to 3 weeks last September but was on licence and had 12 months remaining on it so his probation officer recalled him for the full 12 months instead of the standard 28 days!! He’s due out end of September this year, he’s low risk aswell, He has mental health issues and asthma and has been at this jail now for 8 weeks and his prescription is still pending for his medication and inhalers I’ve rang numerous times to get no joy!! I am worried sick, they didn’t even have enough toilet roll last week to give them a roll each they were given a few pieces and told to make it last! He gets 15 minutes on the yard a day then he’s locked back up until the next day it’s disgusting and was handed 6 colouring pencils and a colouring book yesterday to keep them occupied! He’s 32 not 2!! They need to let them out sooner rather than later they are in there to lose their liberties not there lives! The government need to widen the spectrum of who’s eligible its terrifying for everyone involved especially in these circumstances how do we know that we are gonna see them again? The jails are like a Petri dish at the minute and it’s only gonna get worse! Please let our loved ones out 🙏🏻

    • Jean Killick says:

      My grandson is in Leicester and he has asthma . he asked to be isolated today but said his asthma isn’t bad enough who are they to judge ,,they took his cellmate to isolation, but my grandson works in the kitchens everyday so he’s classed as an essential worker , but they are putting his life at risks,,just read a 58 yr old has died in there , and 4 officer s have got it n 2 more prisoners I feel helpless 😡😡😡😡😥X

  • David O'Connor says:

    I work for a CRC and I take offence at the suggestion that we do not support people released on short sentences. In my CRC we have copious amounts of partnerships that we work with and I have no alternative to recall if someone is released, does not provide me with an address or telephone number and I am dealing with people who are usually 75% OGRS plus probability of reoffending

  • Anon says:

    My husband is currently at a Cat D open prison with 16 weeks remaining before he’s eligible for tag release. He moved to open conditions early Feb and he’s 4 hours away from home. Our children are used to seeing him weekly and haven’t seen him in 8 weeks now. We were waiting on him coming home for a home leave that we were hoping for early this month. Now with all this going on it’s not going to happen and I don’t even know when we will see him. I just feel that him being in there and the risk to him catching the virus is so so high. I worry and my children worry about him, and I can’t even tell them when we will see him next. He’s in a cat D prison, he is low risk and isn’t in for a violent or sexual offence. I don’t see the harm in him being released on tag now to not only protect his and other inmates health but to releave the pressures on the prison system. Staff are struggling with staff shortages, somedays he gets his food 2 hrs late. He’s only aloud out 30 mins a day and he’s supposed to be in open conditions?! They have shared shower/toilet facilities. It’s inhuman. They are human too, they have a right to be protected as much as anyone else. It’s a real worry for people who have family members inside. The government need to stop dragging their feet and follow what other countries have already done! Not leave it before it’s too late!

  • Emma says:

    My partner is in a Cat D prison with limited access to the phone, an extra £5 pin credit. As he cannot work he is not getting paid therefore he cannot order what he wishes off the canteen sheet. Health care won’t let him gain access to an inhaler as he has asthma (although this was requested prior to Covid-19). Ultimately, our one year old daughter is calling for her Dad, who she very much loves and cannot see him. The prison need to do more, i.e monitored Skype more so that children can see their fathers. They do not understand what is going on and why they could see their Dad once a week, then all of a sudden not see their Fathers for 2 weeks. Not even see their face, only in photographs around the house. Its a terrible, terrible shame what is happening. Double/triple punishment.

  • Sarah says:

    My son is doing 20 years for a crime he did not do only allowed one phone call a day cancelled all visit and said they treating them awfull I no they have to be kept safe but the are still human

    • Ruby says:

      Is there any way to over turn a paroleboard decision
      How can they just let someone who is old lie in prison 23 hours a day when their sentence is up

    • Ruth says:

      My husband had a recall to prison last June 14th .he is now has a 6 month prison sentence. Which will be up in may bur he must wait on the parole board seeing g him which again is in may .but I scared for him with the out break of coronavirus as he’s 71 years old .could the parole release him without a meeting .because of the coronavirus dangers to his age

      • My partner is 75 has flu, hasn’t been given his flu jab or his covid booster, can’t got meds not even paracetamol, it’s agaist human rights, if he dies from it what do you do! He’s on recall as well which half the prisons are full of, something should be done about it

  • Rachael says:

    I think that all prisoners within the Cat D open estate with approved private addresses to be released too should be temporarily released asap. This would help stem the staffing issues within the higher secure settings and free up more resources for those in Cat A, B and C at at time of national resource shortages (food, toiletries etc).

  • Carly says:

    My 22 year old son has 7 weeks left of a 10month sentence…he is non violent and made a silly mistake with the wrong group of people…everyone was shocked he recieved a custodial sentence as it was the first time hed got into trouble…first arrest!. I’m worried sick as his prison has 2 confirmed covid 19 cases….please get these prisoners out!!!


    Hi my brother is currently in holme house serving a short sentence. I am worried for his health and safety. As he said last night theres no ppe for guards he has no soap or sanitizer. And is only aloud out for a shower once aday. Im very worried about his welfare too. As there is supposedly only 100 staff left on premises. He also said tension is rising within the prison.Is there any guidence on real statistics. To put my brothers mind at rest. I feel this is going to get out of hand.

  • Tina says:

    The proposal is well thought through and articulated.

    I am appauled that it has taken a pandemic for the Government to consider such suggestions.

    Shame on you Government – we are dealing with human beings who are sent to prison as a punishment – not to be punished whilst in prison.

    I am deeply concerned not only for their physical wellbeing but also their mental health.

  • Tony Rogers says:

    I have taught, on a volunteer basis, in several prisons during the past three years. The prison sentence is not the only punishment handed out by society. There are the long waits until a case comes to trial and there are long waits after conviction for sentencing. These waits are, in themselves, very stressful and a punishment that is on top of the sentence. Lock-downs put huge stress on prisoners because they are prevented from seeing loved ones. These are just a few of the additional punishments. The current coronavirus disaster adds even more stress. Not only that, it puts prisoners at great risk because they are crowded together and that is an additional punishment. Society has a responsibility to revisit sentences urgently and give early release those who have paid their debt to society. Government are changing the rules on how we run our society almost instantly. They can also do it for those who are currently incarcerated.

  • Carly says:

    My Partner has 4 and half years of a 25 year sentence all my visit were cancelled and now they are
    On lock down and he calls when he can,I am so worried and all he wants to do is come home and be with me! He has previously had a collapsed lung and all I do is worry,I hope the prisons do they right thing.

  • Angela Munns says:

    I am so glad there is a voice of sanity out there

  • June Costello says:

    Your message is clear and succinct. Our Justice system is flawed in so many areas now we have the opportunity to act in a humane and sensible manner. It is essential we do so quickly. I hope the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary have the courage to act.

  • Sarah says:

    Isn’t now the time to show how many people are in prison when they are not a danger to society whatever the charge was. Most people could be dealt with outside of prison and should have been as children to prevent ACEs and support children who have them to prevent entry into the CJS.

    I hope this is the start of the end of a medieval system

  • Tara Flood says:

    Now Northern Ireland has stopped prisoners visits !! I believe the rest of the U.K. will follow shortly.
    Your proposals make absolute sence for all concerned .
    Just wonder when there will be more clarity on these matters ?
    I hope the Prison population will not be forgotten as is often the case!!

  • K kelly says:

    Makes very good sense

  • Philip says:

    Thank you for a detailed and well considered set of proposals.
    These make absolute sense and I hope they are given the consideration they deserve.

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