BISHOPS, peers, and MPs have called on the Government to release more women from prison during the pandemic. Prison chaplains and others are also calling for the early-release scheme for all low-risk offenders to be restarted.
More than 40 members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System signed a letter last month to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland. They welcomed the release of some women who were pregnant or who had babies, but insisted that the Government’s actions ensure that all women were released who were eligible for end-of-custody release and who met the criteria for compassionate release on licence.
The Ministry of Justice announced at the end of March that about 70 pregnant women and mothers with babies were eligible for release as part of measures to protect people during the pandemic. Yet, as of 11 May, only 21 pregnant women have been released.
“The release of all these women will help to save lives and is the right thing to do,” the letter stated. “It will help to keep women, babies and prison staff safe. The announcement of the release of women prisoners was the right decision and we know you would want to see this followed by bold action to ensure that it has real impact and saves lives.”
Prison chaplains have also called on the Government to honour its decision to allow the early release of low-risk prisoners to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in prisons. Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that more than half the prisons in England Wales have been affected by the virus: figures from 18 May show that 422 prisoners had tested positive, as well as 542 members of staff.
Despite the Government’s statement in March that it would allow the early release of low-risk offenders, however, this was suspended after it was reported on 18 April that an error had led to four inmates’ mistakenly being let out of two open prisons in Gloucestershire and Derbyshire, as well as from an institution for young offenders in London. Figures from mid-May showed that only 55 prisoners were freed early in England and Wales.
A prison staff member said: “Prisoners have gone from doing a range of activities and being out of their cells for eight hours a day, to being locked in 23 hours a day. We are now able to give prisoners iPads, so that they can say farewell to a family member or virtually attend a funeral, which has never been considered before. Chaplains are also delivering newsletters to prisoners in their cells, so that they’re not feeling like they’re abandoned.
“The prisoners are responding well, and violence levels have really gone down. We are seeing some encouraging and courageous things, but we are facing a huge challenge, and a lot of people are scared.”
The staff member continued: “The numbers we were given by the Government for early release have gone from 4000 to 27, with only a tiny number having been released. People in open prisons who are working their way towards release and spending weekends with their families have also been called back to prison, when, actually, we need to be braver, and, if there’s no concern, just let them out.”
The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who is the Bishop to Prisons and one of the letter’s signatories, expressed concern over the pressures faced by prison staff and inmates. “Prisons can be fertile breeding grounds due to people being in such close proximity,” he said. “Prisons are already overcrowded, and we now have a ‘perfect storm’ of reduced staffing levels, prisoners’ being in their cells for far too long, all of the work done by charities being suspended, and no prison visits. About 50 per cent of prisoners have mental-health problems, which makes things very pressured and volatile.
“The early-release programme should get up and running again, particularly as we still have people coming into prisons because the courts are still running, and that in itself is an infection risk. However, if I’m looking for a silver lining, then it’s that the Covid-19 pandemic will bring to light some of the issues that were there previously, and maybe, as a society, we will have the political and social will to tackle some of these more energetically.”
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who is the Bishop for Women’s Prisons and also a signatory, said: “Female prisoners have very specific needs. About 60 per cent have experienced abuse, and locking them up does not deal with their underlying issues. With Covid-19, children cannot have the usual visits and access to their parents in prison, which causes a lot of anxiety to both sides. Prisoners should therefore get free and frequent phone calls and a video link to their families.
“The majority of women are in prison for short-term, non-violent offences, and the Government needs to work more with charities and women’s centres to help with releasing more of them.”