10:06, May 06 258 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-06 10:06:03
Prison reform bodies urge ministers not to ditch early release scheme

Ministers have been warned not to abandon the early temporary release scheme in prisons in England and Wales after documents revealed only a fraction of those approved for release had been freed amid concerns the current restrictive regime was not sustainable.

The Ministry of Justice announced on 4 April that up to 4,000 prisoners who were within two months of their release date and had passed a risk assessment would be released.

As at 28 April, 200 prisoners had been approved for early temporary release with a further 300 being considered, according to information provided to the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust following a threat of legal action.

On 27 April, ministers confirmed that only 33 prisoners had been released – including pregnant prisoners and inmates in mother and baby units, meaning fewer than 20 had been freed under the temporary early release scheme.

The Ministry of Justice said it would not provide an up-to-date figure on the numbers released under the early temporary release scheme. Government lawyers told the charities the scheme had not been abandoned.

Since the announcement, Public Health England modelling has shown the spread of infection and rate of deaths in prison has been much lower than expected.

But the containment of the outbreak in prisons has been driven by a highly restrictive regime, which involves increased time in cells, segregation and a ban on all visits to prisons across the country, a regime that PHE has said would need to remain in place until April next year.

The two penal reform charities have warned this approach is not sustainable in the long term and further releases would be required.

Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Sticking to the current regime of almost universal bang-up simply isn’t sustainable for the next 12 months.

“And without government intervention, the prison population is bound to return to previous levels as courts come back into action. A much more generous early release scheme remains an essential part of what is needed to keep people safe.”

Documents provided to the two charities show that in late March it was feared as many as 3,500 people in prison could die. So far, 19 prisoners have died and the estimated forecast of total deaths has been revised down to 100. There are 80,100 prisoners in England and Wales across 117 prisons.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “As things stand, the government strategy in prisons rests on levels of isolation that amount to prolonged solitary confinement. It is neither sustainable nor humane.

“Positive steps to create space in prisons would make them more purposeful and save lives.”

Lawyers for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust wrote to the justice secretary last month, threatening legal action over the government’s failure to release more people from prison during the pandemic but the charities have decided not to progress the action at this stage.

As of 5pm on Monday, 362 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 across 74 prisons in England and Wales, while 401 prison staff, working in 67 prisons had been confirmed as having the virus.