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Justice and Fairness in Prisons · 3 Apr 2020

In a time of coronavirus, the rights of people in prison are more important than ever

Parliament has just passed the Coronavirus Act 2020 which grants an enormous increase in state power. There have already been complaints that the police are exceeding their new powers. This new age of emergency laws has renewed debate around the need to protect our ever-fragile human rights. In the uniquely coercive environment of a prison, it is all the more important that people’s rights are respected – as our first Justice and Fairness briefing laid out. In the middle of a pandemic, those rights are more important than ever.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Batchelet, warned this week that failing to protect vulnerable people in prison from the spread of disease risked breaching the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Failing to prevent the spread of disease in overcrowded, unsanitary prisons has considerable public health implications. Even under the new restrictions that have been put in place, prisons are not hermetically sealed; prison staff enter and leave the prison estate every day. The consequences of a failure to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in prisons will be felt far beyond prison walls.

Measures have been taken, but they do not go far enough. The Chief Executive of HMPPS, Jo Farrar, told the Justice Committee on the 24 March that the usual regime in prisons has been paused temporarily ‘to apply social distancing’. However, in a report commissioned by the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust which sets out the most up-to-date evidence concerning coronavirus in prisons, Professor Richard Coker states that ‘effective social distancing is, in practice, practically impossible’ in overcrowded prisons in England and Wales.

On a typical day, over 18,000 people are sharing cells designed for one person. The Howard League have heard multiple reports that people in prison have no or limited access to soap, hot water, towels or hand sanitiser. At the time of writing, three people in prison have now died and there are 73 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons in England and Wales. On top of this, prisoners frequently report long delays in getting medical concerns acted on in prisons – especially at times of low staffing (over a quarter of prison staff are currently self-isolating). Just this week, we learnt of a person in prison with asthma who was waiting for an inhaler before the COVID-19 shutdown and has still not received one. Cramped and unsanitary prison conditions and inadequate healthcare provision could lead to serious loss of life and puts not only prisoners but prison staff and the wider community at risk.

Healthcare provision is a human rights issue. In 2010 the US Supreme Court ruled that healthcare delivery in California’s prisons violated the protection against cruel and unusual punishment. This week, it was announced that California will grant early release to 3,500 people in order to reduce crowding in its jails and the spread of disease. Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iran and France have already taken steps to release people from prison in response to the pandemic. As set out in the Howard League’s and the Prison Reform Trust’s joint letter of 1 April 2020 to the Secretary of State, urgent action is required in England and Wales to secure the release of a substantial number of people in prison who are either vulnerable to the disease or can be safely managed in the community to reduce overcrowding in our prisons.

Honouring the rights of people in prison does not only help to make prisons fairer and safer places. It helps to make the general population safer too. With rights come responsibilities. In a time of emergency, it is vitally important that we all take responsibility for helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People held in overcrowded prison conditions cannot exercise such responsibility. Honouring their rights means releasing those who can be safely released and improving conditions for those who remain inside.

The Supreme Court has recognised the benefits to society of people knowing their rights and responsibilities:

“People […] need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them.”

R (on the application of UNISON) (Appellant) v Lord Chancellor, 2017, paragraph 71

A culture which honours the rights of people in prison in turn enables people to exercise responsibilities which will help to protect us all.


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