Yesterday it was confirmed that two people in prison at HMP Kilmarnock were in self-isolation with the first suspected cases of Coronavirus in prisons in Scotland. Meanwhile, down south a prison officer at HMP High Down was diagnosed with the virus. This is terrifying for those who are trapped inside and for their families and friends outside.
A late plan, and poor communication for prisoners and their families, staff or the public. For those watching the rapid spread of the coronavirus, both from within and outwith prison walls, this moment was inevitable. However, despite its clear inevitability, there is currently no clear transparent plan in place from the Scottish government regarding how people living and working in prison will be protected. Until today there had been a deafening silence from the Scottish Prison Service both publicly and internally. Reports from those inside suggest that information for both people living and working in prison has been very poor, which adds to the fear. When a statement was finally released today, this offered only vague assurances, which fail to address the specifics of the prison setting.
Scottish prisons are among the most crowded, creating ‘perfect’ conditions for rapid spread of Covid-19. At 150 people per 100,000 of the population, Scotland’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in Europe. As of the 13th March there were 8,094 people in Scottish prisons (SPS, 2020), significantly higher than the operational capacity of 7,676 (Audit Scotland, 2019). When the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT, 2019) visited Scottish prisons in 2018, they found that people living in Barlinnie had less then 3m2 each of living space, and in HMP Grampian mattresses had been placed on the floors under bunk beds, to turn double cells into triple occupancy. Conditions in the cells in Barlinnie, especially in the Admissions Unit, were described as dirty and cramped (pp.30-32).
Those in prison are especially at risk of worse outcomes of Covid-19. It is well-established that people in prison experience poorer physical health than the general population. The UK government guidance published on 16th March identifies a number of ‘vulnerable’ groups, and people in prison find themselves over-represented within some of these groups. Data from 2007 identified 12% of people in Scottish prisons as having asthma, compared to 5% of the general population (Graham, 2007). The same report estimates a high proportion of Hepatitis C among people in prison (20%), and a higher rate of liver problems due to alcohol use. While HMP Low Moss yesterday asked volunteers not to come into the prison for at least three weeks, in others it appears to have been business as usual, with education and other events which involve the flow of people back and forth through the prison gates continuing as normal.
Self-isolating is difficult and particularly dangerous for those in prison. The physical and emotional toll of isolation within prison is well-established, so the Government advice given to those in the community presents risks to those in prison. People in prison are at increased risk of death from suicide, and there have been a number of high profile deaths of young people in Scottish prisons in recent years. Recent research emphasised that less isolation and more access to family were crucial for the wellbeing of young people in custody, but both of these are likely to be highly limited in the current context (Armstrong and McGhee, 2019). Without any clear strategies for managing the pandemic in prison, the default approach likely is to just bang up people in their cells.
Reducing visits risks prison order. With the likelihood of reduced or cancelled visits, this is hugely concerning and dangerous. Family visits are precious, and both the direct and indirect impact of limiting these can be significant. In Italy, when significant restrictions were placed on visits as part of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, this contributed to riots within the prisons, which resulted in the death of 12 people (The Independent, 13 March 2020). The risk of instability inside the prison is yet another concern for those in prison and their families.
Staffing levels and sick leave in Scottish prisons are critical. As well as direct measures taken by the prison to limit these, there will also be knock-on effects of staff shortages as a result of self-isolation and sickness. SPS is not well-equipped to manage this, as sickness absence has already been identified by Audit Scotland as one of key pressures placing the estate at increasing risk of failure. There has been a rise in sickness absence of over 60% in the last three years (Audit Scotland, 2019), with 40,522 working days lost to sickness between 1 January and 24 July 2019 alone (SPS, 2019).
Without action, court delays could increase the time people spend in prison. There are currently well over a thousand (1,317) untried people in Scottish prisons, with another 311 awaiting sentence. These people ‘on remand’ in prison are rightly concerned that any court closures will mean substantial delays to their cases, which could significantly extend the period of time that they spend in prison, despite not having been convicted or sentenced. As well as those on remand, there are a number of people in Scottish prisons who are awaiting removal or deportation. At end of December 2019, there were 42 people being held in Dungavel immigration removal centre (SDV, 2020). These people are not serving a sentence for any crime.
We are seeing now the cost of high prison populations. Now is the time to urgently reduce the prison population. In Ireland, we understand that consideration is being given to early release for some groups (RTE, 13th March 2020). Similar rumours have also emerged about England and Wales, with the head of the Prison Officers’ Association reported by Sky News as saying that everything was on the table (Sky News, 15th March 2020). It has been reported by the BBC today that in England and Wales, the Home Detention Curfew scheme will be extended so that people can spend the final six months of the custody part of their sentence in the community on tag (up from the current arrangements of four and a half months).
The SPS and Scottish Government need to offer clear, effective and supportive positions, and SPARC demands, at a minimum:
A clear and detailed statement from the SPS on its Covid-19 policy, available to the public and communicated immediately to all staff and all imprisoned people and their families.
Urgent and maximum expansion of HDC release for prisoners including automatic HDC for anyone in the last six months of their sentence, as is under consideration in England and Wales.
Presumption of bail for all those accused; immediate release of those on remand as default excepting only those charged with murder, rape and domestic abuse.
Immigration authorities and the UK government should exercise powers to release those in immigration detention, and support should be provided for those with nowhere to go.
Postponement of all community sentences, following the lead of the Netherlands to modify community sentences.
End the mobile phone ban now – emergency suspension of criminal prohibition on phones, and until this is implemented, prisoners should be given unlimited credit to make phone calls to loved ones.
No questions asked policy and immediate access for prisoners to speak by phone to qualified mental health professional or service.
Acquire and make use of iPads and tablets for video visits in all prisons and for all prisoners.
Free stamps and stationery provided to prisoners and families.
Continued access to exercise and outdoors for all those in prison.
A clear protocol for emergency medical attention for those unwell in prison.
Direct involvement of prisoners co-creating strategies to support wellbeing – this may involve letting prisoners suggest ideas, self-organise their own staggered access to activities and association.
A PRISON SENTENCE SHOULDN’T BE A DEATH SENTENCE