02:06, April 21 175 0 theguardian.com

2020-04-21 02:06:05
The Society interview  Richard Garside: 'The UK is lagging behind Europe on coronavirus in prisons'

“Inaction by government on Covid-19 in UK prisons is putting not just prisoners’ lives at risk but also prison staff, and the general public,” says Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which has just launched a Europe-wide project to collate and compare the measures taken by different governments and prison systems.

“If you set out to create an institution with the express intent of concentrating and transmitting Covid-19, it would probably look much like a prison,” he adds, especially one as overcrowded as many in the UK.

Richard Coker, a leading epidemiologist and emeritus professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, agrees. He describes prisons as “epidemiological pumps”.

To deal with overcrowding, prisons have been told to “cohort” – quarantine sick prisoners together. “But without proper testing,” Garside points out, “this will be putting people with ordinary colds and flu in with Covid-19 cases and risking lives.”

Cells may also be treated as households, so if one inmate develops symptoms, all occupants of that cell have to isolate together. “And some cells do not even have the facilities to wash your hands,” he adds.

“Even a short sentence for a minor crime is potentially a death sentence, puts staff at ongoing risk and provides a pool of reinfection for the wider community.”

Covid-19 is certainly spreading in jails. Official Ministry of Justice figures on Monday 20 April reported infection in more than half of jails in England and Wales, with 278 prisoners having tested positive, as well as 194 staff and eight staff from Prisoner Escorting and Custody Services. But real figures will be higher. Since tests are only done on admission to hospital, and hospitalisations are a fraction of cases, the actual numbers of inmates with Covid-19 in prisons are likely to be multiples of these figures.

Moreover, confirmed deaths from coronavirus stand at 15 prisoners and one member of prison staff with two more suspected. Again, the MoJ admits these figures lag well behind reality.

“The government has not approached this crisis with anything like the seriousness – or the speed – it required,” says Garside. “To have any hope of controlling Covid-19 in prisons you have to have one to a cell, and to achieve that we need to remove at least 10,000 to 15,000 prisoners from the system.”

The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, estimates that around 1,800 prisoners are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, and had they been in the community would have been told to isolate and shield themselves for three months. “Shielding is pretty much impossible in prison but nothing is being done to prioritise their release,” says Garside.

The MoJ has begun temporarily releasing pregnant prisoners, and those in mother and baby units who do not pose a high risk of harm. But only 17 out of a potential 70 women have been released since the government announced the emergency measure three weeks ago, Buckland told MPs and peers this week. On 4 April the MoJ announced a plan to release 4,000 prisoners early on licence who were due for release in the next two months. Ten days later, just 14 prisoners had been released and after six men were released prematurely the scheme was suspended. It is expected to restart later this week.

“The whole thing suspended for a handful of minor errors. Could this make any clearer the government’s total lack of understanding of the urgency of this situation?” asks Garside.

As in other essential sectors, lack of personal protective equipment has been an issue in prisons. Garside has received reports of staff having to take prisoners suspected of having Covid-19 to hospital while handcuffed to them.

About a quarter of prison staff are off sick or self-isolating, putting further pressure on the system. Justice minister, Lucy Frazer QC, told the justice select committee last week that testing of staff began over the Easter weekend and should soon become routine.

Meanwhile, visits to prisons have been halted, movement of prisoners reduced and collective activities stopped, but Garside says courts are still sending people to prison, even for relatively minor crimes like careless driving and petty drug offences.

The MoJ announced just before Easter that it is to create 500 temporary cells in the grounds of six prisons. Yet, according to Garside, this will have “almost no impact on transmission – the vast majority of prisoners will still be in overcrowded conditions”.

Some other European countries have reacted more proactively than this country to reducing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons. Hence the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ project to create a “knowledge base” of European responses on which all can draw. At least 12 countries are already involved and data will be released on a rolling basis from next later this week, with collation and analysis to follow. “It won’t exactly reveal best practice; nobody is doing it brilliantly. But at least better practice,” says Garside.

Austria, for instance, is deferring prison sentences shorter than three years for non-dangerous offenders, as are parts of Germany. Finland is doing the same for sentences of less than six months (and it sends far fewer people to prison to start with). Italy, which has already seen prison riots, has reduced its prison population by 6,000 in six weeks, and France by 10,000 in the last month, and Ireland has doubled temporary releases since the start of March.

“Our government must do more,” he concludes. “Drastic measures are being taken across the world with enormous consequences for liberty and economies. Millions of British citizens are in lockdown, yet our government seems unable to take some fairly modest steps to stop Covid-19 rampaging through the prison system. The justice secretary needs to demonstrate that he is up to the challenge of making these decisions. If he’s not, maybe he needs to make way for someone who is.”

Garside has worked in the field of criminal justice reform for more than 20 years. He started because he believed that criminal justice was one of the most problematic areas of society. “It is expected to deal with deep societal problems when at best it can only manage rather than resolve them, and at worst it entrenches them. Prisons are a particular interest because the conditions are so awful and so many are held unnecessarily,” he says. He has stayed in the field because “there is so much left to be done”.

So does he think this crisis will lead to positive changes in our prison service? He says he fears not, “but I hope it will show up the terrible – overcrowded, unsafe, unsanitary - conditions in our prisons”.

He adds: “And if we can release thousands of prisoners in an expedited way and the sky doesn’t fall in, then we could think about who we imprison and why, and consider different ways to sanction people. Some will always need to be contained, but prisons at the moment are a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 51.



Family: Married, two teenage children.

Lives: London.

Education: Simon Langton boys’ school, Canterbury, Kent; University of Nottingham, BA Hons, theology (“which confirmed me in my atheism”).

Career: 2006-present: director, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies; 2010-present: senior visiting research fellow, the Open University; 20-2005: director, Crime and Society Foundation; 1998-2003: head of communications, Nacro, a national social justice charity; 1996-1998: press officer, Survival.

Interests: Swimming, hill walking, piano, history and politics.



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