Skip Content

8 Apr 2020

Howard League and Prison Reform Trust urge ministers to move further and faster to protect prisoners, staff and public from coronavirus

The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (Wednesday 8 April) written to the government again, urging ministers to move further and faster to reduce the prison population and avoid “an intolerable human cost in terms of the lives of both staff and prisoners”.

It is the second time this month that the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust have written to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, about the outbreak of coronavirus in prisons in England and Wales.

At the weekend, the government announced an end of custody temporary release scheme, but the charities understand that this is likely to lead to a reduction in prison numbers far below the figure of 4,000 eligible prisoners that was publicised.

The charities warn that the response so far is “wholly inadequate” in the light of a call by the Prison Governors’ Association for a reduction of 15,000 – which is understood to be in line with advice provided to the government by public health experts.

The letter asks the government for more information about the process, practicalities, progress and principles underpinning its response to the pandemic.

It follows the Secretary of State’s appearance before the Justice Committee yesterday (Tuesday 7 April), where it emerged that only six of the 70 pregnant women considered for release from prison had actually been freed.

The charities have handed ministers a report by Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which sets out the most up-to-date evidence concerning the nature, spread and transmission of coronavirus as it applies to prisons.

The report cites research that estimates fatality rates from the virus of up to 12 per cent, probably associated with early rapid spread and the breakdown of, or lack of access to, healthcare services.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The urgent need to reduce the crowding in prisons has been recognised but, having crossed the Rubicon, there is a real danger that timorous action and feeble delivery will seriously weaken the government’s management of coronavirus in prisons.

“Ministers must do more to protect people living and working in prison, as well as the wider public.”

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “It turns out that the step in the right direction the Lord Chancellor took in announcing an early release scheme last Saturday is a very small step indeed.

“The detail we now have shows that only a fraction of the 4,000 prisoners apparently eligible are actually likely to benefit. So we repeat the call to follow the science – this is not a time to be inching towards a solution. Every day lost is more lives at risk.”

The letter states that, for those prisoners who are to be released, much clearer information is required as to how they will be supported in terms of finances, housing and approved premises, and electronic monitoring.

It goes on to suggest a number of further measures that could be taken to ease the pressure on the prison system, stressing the need to apply anxious scrutiny to all decisions to remand or recall a person to prison or hand down prison sentences. Other measures could include the use of compassionate release and executive release.

In their first open letter to the Secretary of State, dated Wednesday 1 April, the charities warned that failure to act immediately could lead to loss of life on an unprecedented scale.

Professor Coker’s report states 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, adding 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”.

As the virus continues to spread in prisons, prisoners who would otherwise be safe to release risk becoming critically ill in an environment not equipped to treat them. This puts not only their lives in danger, but also those of the prison staff trying to look after them.

The consequences of further delay will be felt far beyond prison walls. Professor Coker’s report reveals that, as large shared spaces, prisons act as “epidemiological pumps”, which can drive the spread of disease among the wider community.

Explosive coronavirus outbreaks within large shared spaces have acted as preludes to wider transmission among the general population, as has been seen in a cluster of cases associated with a ski-chalet in France and in church and hospital clusters in South Korea.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, as of 5pm on Tuesday 7 April, 129 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus across 47 prisons. Twenty-four prison staff, working in 13 different prisons, and five Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS) staff have also tested positive. At least 10 prisoners and two staff are known to have died..

On the ground, there have been reports of dangerous practices. For example, in Wandsworth prison, where men with milder cold and flu-like symptoms have been forced to share cells with confirmed coronavirus patients in an ‘isolation wing’. Professor Coker’s report expresses concern about this practice.

Staff shortages due to self-isolation and changes to the regime have had a severe impact, with reports that most prisoners are effectively in solitary confinement.

There is unanimous support from prison officers and prison governors for immediate action to release prisoners and save lives.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Prison Reform Trust is an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective prison system.
  3. The open letter, dated Wednesday 8 April, by the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, can be read online.
  4. All published correspondence between the two charities and the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, as well as the report by Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, can be read on the Howard League website.
  5. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, are available for interview. To arrange an interview, contact the charities’ respective communications teams, whose contact details are given below.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

Peter Dawson
Prison Reform Trust
Phone: 020 7689 7732

Alex Hewson
Senior Policy and Communications Officer
Prison Reform Trust
Phone: 020 7689 7746

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation