The Ministry of Justice is treading a dangerous path in its response to Covid-19.
Since early on in the pandemic prisons have received attention as potential hotbeds of contagion. They are cramped and unsanitary institutions, full of people with underlying health problems who receive inadequate healthcare whilst they’re incarcerated. Prisons also increase the rate of spread in the community due to the daily through-flow of families and service providers visiting prisoners, staff clocking in and out, and prisoners starting and finishing custodial sentences.
Reported cases and deaths of prisoners and staff have steadily crept up since the outbreak began. As of 5pm on Thursday 30 April, 345 prisoners have tested positive for the virus and 15 have died. A Public Health England analysis published on Monday 27 April estimates that over 2,000 prisoners have potentially had the disease.
On 4 April the Ministry of Justice announced that up to 4,000 prisoners could be released to control the spread of the disease. At the time the prison population stood at 82,500, the highest in Europe. A few days later, in a submission to the Justice Committee, the Prison Governors’ Association reported that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and Public Health England required the release of 15,000 prisoners to truly safeguard prisoners and staff.
Two weeks later, when only 14 prisoners - that is not a typo - had been released, it emerged that the Ministry of Justice’s scheme had been disrupted or halted as six people were let out in error. As of this week, only 33 people - again not a typo - have been released early in response to Covid-19. By Friday 1 May, the prison population had fallen to just under 81,000, largely because courts have stopped sitting.
Other European states are well ahead of the government on this. France’s prison population is down to 62,500, a drop of 10,000 since Covid-19 hit. Italy’s prison population now stands at 65,000, a drop of 6,000. These countries have used more extensive early release schemes as well as other measures on top of the falls in judicial activity to bring the number of people in custody down.
In contrast, the criminal justice jurisdiction of England and Wales is relying on locking prisoners in their cells for 23 hours a day and a ‘temporary’ expansion in capacity, including the installation of 500 converted shipping containers and the reopening of a notorious children’s prison formerly run by G4S, to manage coronavirus.
We should be very wary about these ‘temporary’ measures. Firstly because they are likely to lead to other serious problems like the intensification of psychological pain, ubiquitous in prisons, which in turn will lead to more prisoners self-harming and ending their own lives. The risk of this is compounded by the fact that family visits are currently suspended. Secondly, because it leaves the prison service very little wiggle room to prevent future outbreaks of coronavirus.
And thirdly, because the extra capacity might turn out to not be very temporary at all. Johnson’s Tory government was already committed to expanding the prison estate by 10,000 places and had budgeted £2.5 billion to build them. In 1997, the 800-place prison ship HMP Weare – a dystopian monstrosity - opened as a temporary measure to ease pressures from overcrowding. It stayed open for eight years.
Prisons and prison expansion are core socialist issues. Prisons are not there to, nor do they, protect us from the very real harms we face. They are filled with people who are poor, who were homeless, who have mental health and substance abuse issues, who faced neglect and abuse as children, and who are disproportionately people of colour. Prisons are there to respond to the symptoms of the social problems which emerge from a society diseased by capitalist social relations. 10,000 more prison places means 10,000 more working class people who will be torn from their communities and thrown away.
Socialists should fight to change and ultimately abolish the conditions under which prison became the solution to social ills - and meanwhile to reduce the number of people imprisoned. In the pandemic, this is urgent.