14:46, May 12 149 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-12 14:46:04
Coronavirus: only 55 prisoners freed early in England and Wales

Just 55 prisoners have been released early under emergency measures to alleviate the Covid-19 crisis in jails in England and Wales for which up to 4,000 prisoners were eligible, a minister has revealed.

Lucy Frazer, the justice minister, told the justice select committee, that as of 11 May, an additional 21 pregnant women had been released from jail, and five inmates released on compassionate release.

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. Separately, they said pregnant prisoners or inmates in mother and baby units (MBU) would be released and at the time of the announcement around 70 were eligible.

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

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

Penal reform campaigners have warned this approach is not sustainable in the long term and risks rising tensions within jails, as well as long-term damage to prisoners’ mental health and prospects for rehabilitation.

Andy Slaughter MP, a justice committee member, said the low number of early releases under the emergency scheme represented a “missed opportunity”.

Frazer told the committee the early release scheme was only part of the strategy, adding: “The 4,000 was always the number of people who would be eligible for the scheme, not necessarily the number of those who would be released.”

Frazer said advice from PHE was that in order to operate a safe system prisons needed to reduce headcount by 5,000-5,500 in England and Wales.

At the start of the crisis, the prison population was about 83,000. It is now about 80,000 due to scheduled releases and reduced numbers coming into prisons via the courts, as well as processing prisoners held on remand.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said: “It is very concerning that measures the government said were necessary to protect our NHS and save lives have barely been acted upon.

“If the government has changed its opinion on the necessity of reducing overcrowding in prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic, it should say so and publish the scientific reasoning that backs it up.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a worrying time for everyone, but particularly so for people living and working in prisons and their families. The glacial rate of release will do nothing to ease their anxiety.

“Ministers must get a grip and fast. With the courts beginning to hear cases again, prisons risk becoming engulfed unless we see more urgency to release people safely.”

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