Should certain prisoners be released during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The government is considering releasing some low-risk prisoners to protect other inmates and prison staff from the coronavirus, reports the BBC.

Justice secretary Robert Buckland said the virus posed a particular risk to Britain’s prisons as people are stuck inside together and many are overcrowded.

Packed tightly together and unable to keep away from other inmates, the coronavirus could quickly spread through prisons and pose a threat to life.

Buckland told the Commons justice committee he was looking at releasing some inmates on a temporary license while some of those on remand and awaiting trial could be moved to bail hostels.

Should the government release some prisoners to stop the spread of coronavirus or would it cause too many problems?

The Claim

Amnesty International has asked the government to release prisoners who are elderly or suffer from underlying medical conditions which make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

They described reducing the prison population as an important way of slowing down the spread of the virus, suggesting that along with vulnerable prisoners they should also consider temporarily releasing those who don’t pose a risk to the public.

Eric Allison writes in The Guardian that releasing certain prisoners will help save lives during the pandemic, noting that there has already been at least one case of an inmate testing positive for the coronavirus.

He asks how an infected inmate is supposed to self-isolate if they are having to share a cell with another, writing that a National Audit Office report found 10 out of 35 men’s prisons failing to meet minimum standards of cleanliness which would comply with infection control standards.

Allison cites Professor Richard Coker’s prediction that 60 per cent of prisoners could be infected with coronavirus and says he has read “horror stories of medical neglect” in the penal system which have meant people requiring medical attention have been ignored or given inadequate treatment.

Overcrowded prisons also put an additional strain on prison staff, of which around 10 per cent are currently off sick or having to self-isolate in order to contain the spread of coronavirus. Temporarily releasing some prisoners will make their job easier during what is expected to be a very difficult time.

A number of other countries such as Spain have ordered the release of certain prisoners in order to prevent the disease being transmitted between staff and inmates.

Experts around the world have described prisons as “powder kegs ready to blow up” and have said releasing prisoners is the only way to slow down the virus and protect people from infection.

The Counter Claim

However, releasing so many prisoners would pose a significant challenge for probation staff as they would have thousands more people to keep tabs on.

Although the prisoners released would be considered not to pose a danger to society they would still need to be monitored to ensure those released were not violating the trust placed in them.

The police might also be too busy to respond to some crimes as they are already occupied with enforcing the government’s lockdown.

Police chiefs have warned that the coronavirus could bring out the worst in some people as a series of crimes which hampered efforts to get through the pandemic have already been committed.

Oxygen canisters have been stolen from hospitals, ambulance tires have been punctured and supermarket delivery vans have been destroyed while the public is being warned that scammers will seek to exploit them during isolation.

The police and probation services are busy, releasing some prisoners could make them more so at a time when they are in more demand than ever.

While the government considers releasing certain inmates they have already introduced other measures to protect prisoners and staff from coronavirus, suspending all visits to inmates during the pandemic and supplying phones not connected to the internet to certain prisoners so they can remain in contact with their families.

There is also a concern that if the infection rate among prisoners is higher than previously thought then inmates with the virus could be released and spread it to their families, with the virus transmitted most often to people living in the same home.

The Facts

Britain’s justice system has had to respond to the pandemic, with all trials in England and Wales put on hold and no new trials due to start.

There are over 83,000 people incarcerated in the UK, around 16 per cent of which are over 50 and more at risk from the coronavirus. Britain’s over 50 prison population has risen significantly over the past decade as repeated re-offenders have grown older.

A parliamentary report from 2018 concluded that around 15 per cent of prisoners had respiratory conditions.

Britain’s prisons have been overcrowded and exceeding capacity for years, while 63 per cent of prison staff have said there are inadequate handwashing facilities in the facilities they work in.



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The government has said handwashing facilities are available to prisoners and staff. They say they have been working with supplies to make sure people will not run out of cleaning materials.

The Home Office has said their approach to the situation will be guided by advice from Public Health England.

At least 13 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus in nine different prisons, though more facilities are suspected to have unconfirmed cases.



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