By Sam Julius, Public Affairs & Campaigns Officer
Faced with a COVID-19 resurgence, as case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths all continue to rise, it is time for the Government to act by implementing – or extending – several key policies in order to reduce the impact of the virus on those in contact with the criminal justice system. The Government’s strategy needs to incorporate support, both for those in prison, and for those being released.
To the Government’s credit, actions taken during the first wave helped to mitigate against the worst impacts of the virus in the prison estate – namely by utilising technology to help those in prison retain contact with their families and friends, in the absence of physical visits. Continuing and expanding the use of video visits and email contact, as well as retaining the funding for extra phone credit and reduced phone charges for people in prison, and improving in cell technology so that can people can contact family even if locked down, is therefore essential.
Yet this cannot be the extent of actions taken and we are calling on the Government to both retain certain key elements of its initial response to the pandemic, as referenced above, while going even further on the provision of housing and essential items to all prison leavers, along with reforms to sentencing to relieve overcrowding and reduced the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.
With more than 50 years’ experience of delivering support in prison and in the community, Nacro is all too aware of the gaps in provision for prison leavers. Now, in the midst of a global health pandemic, it is critical that the foundations are in place to ensure the wellbeing and boost the rehabilitation chances of those returning to the community.
That is why the Ministry of Justice should reinstate the additional accommodation funding to all prison leavers at risk of homelessness (which ran from June until the end of August). Prison leavers make up a significant proportion of Government homeless figures, with over 1,000 released from prison homeless from the date lockdown was instituted – 23rd March – to 30th April. Tackling homelessness amongst the prison leaver population would play a significant role in helping the Government to reach its target to eliminate rough sleeping by 2024.
The reinstatement of additional accommodation funding will enable resettlement teams and probation officers to apply for additional support for people leaving prison, otherwise facing homelessness. In addition, there should be a clear duty and process to provide suitable and sustainable accommodation for anyone leaving prison if they are required to either self-isolate, are symptomatic, or have tested positive for COVID-19. No such duty or process currently exists.
Support should be extended through an increased discharge grant of £80, allowing prison leavers to afford the basics in the days after release (the same figure given to those under the early release scheme). Along with the grant, a ‘Release Pack’ including key essentials – where needed, must also be provided, which would contain toiletries, basic food supplies, a change of clothes, clear COVID-19 information and clearly signposted points of contact for key services. All leavers should also have access to a mobile phone, with a basic four-week data and calls package so that essential services can be reached and social contact maintained.
For those still in prison, the impact of COVID-19 restrictions has been severe, particularly on their physical and mental wellbeing. For the past seven months, most have been locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Contact with education services and other in-prison programmes has been significantly limited. We cannot allow this to continue and there are a number of steps that the Government can take to remedy this.
A presumption against short prison sentences – of less than six months – would reduce the size of the prison population and reduce the amount of movement into and within the estate. Reinstating and widening the remit of the early release scheme (including people with longer left to serve), avoiding recall as far as possible, and remanding someone to prison only as a last resort, are additional measures that would be a boon for the fight against COVID-19. The early release scheme, in particular, was under-utilised with only 316 people released (from a predicted 4,000) by the end of August. These sentencing measures would act in conjunction with the practical measures already outlined such as continued improvement of in cell technology.
It is vital that we learn the lessons from the first national lockdown, and what this means for the criminal justice system ahead of what will be a harsh winter. The virus has had a significant impact on the most vulnerable in our society, including people in custody, and those who have been recently released. At Nacro, as is the case across the sector, we believe that the steps laid out here will facilitate the safety of people in prison, the safety of their families, and the communities into which they are released.