The Catholic Church has joined calls for the Government to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in prisons by urgently releasing some people where it is safe to do.
The call comes after a top defence barrister demanded that the Government acts now on “hellish” and “inhumane” prison conditions, amid fears of riots and the spread of coronavirus.
The Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, Richard Moth, who serves as lead bishop for prisons in England and Wales, warned that prisoners are at “particular risk” from the pandemic as he called for the government to “safely” release some prisoners, particularly those who are in vulnerable groups, including older, unwell and pregnant inmates.
“The tens of thousands of women and men in our overcrowded prisons are at particular risk from this pandemic. They are no less deserving of safety and healthcare than anyone else in our society,” he said.
“It is very encouraging that ministers are considering releasing some people, to relieve pressure and protect the most vulnerable. Given the rate at which Covid-19 is spreading this should be done as soon as safely possible, particularly for older or unwell people, pregnant women and those who can be released on temporary licence without posing any risk to the wider public. Steps should also be taken to reduce the number of new custodial sentences at this time of crisis, reserving them for only the most serious offences.”
Meanwhile, he stressed that it is “vitally important” that the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service continues extending access to phones and other opportunities for inmates who must remain in prison so that they can stay in touch with their families, now that visits have been suspended.
“I understand that releasing people from custody will increase pressure on civil society, given that many will not have regular income or secure accommodation. Where possible I hope Catholics will support parish initiatives in response to the pandemic and contribute to charities through the National Emergencies Trust appeal,” the bishop added. “Above all, we pray for those in prison and everyone affected by this crisis.”
Bishop Moth’s call came after barrister Jeremy Dein QC described the current situation as “pandemonium” and said all non-dangerous criminals and many of the 30,000 people on remand awaiting trial should be released.
His call was echoed by a woman who fears for her partner, a non-violent category C prisoner, currently held at HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest jails in the UK.
In an interview with ITV London News, Mr Dein said: “Prisoners are effectively cut off from the world at the moment. Families are distraught.
“Visits have been cancelled, phone calls have been cancelled and an additional problem is remand prisoners are having no contact with their lawyers so they don’t know what’s going on.
“They are completely ignorant as to developments in their case. They are shut off from the world.”
The lawyer, who has featured in the documentary series Murder, Mystery And My Family, said the decision to postpone new trials was understandable but had created a “massive backlog”, leaving 30,000 remand prisoners in limbo “indefinitely”.
He said the impact on mental health for prisoners and their families was a major issue, yet was “low down on the Government and public agenda”.
“Family members are complaining that the mental health of their relatives is being jeopardised. And the mental health of the families themselves is being harmed because they are so fraught with worry for their relatives that this is adding layers and layers of stress for families.
“So the whole issue of remand prisoners and prisoners as a whole is a major issue, but of course it’s at the bottom of the agenda at the moment.
“At the moment, cases are not being put back to any date at all so psychologically, to the extent prisoners are receiving any information, the information they are getting is, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’.
“When you are in a cell 24 hours a day, that’s not good news.”
He went on: “The only word that springs to my mind is pandemonium.
“The majority of prisoners are doubled up in cells. In addition, although I have no personal experience, it’s my understanding that sanitisation remains problematic and all the things we are being told to do minute by minute, hour by hour, are simply not feasible in prison because the resources are not there. The reality of the situation is hellish.
“My plea to the Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office is to find some means to avoid the prison population being the forgotten people.
“And whether convicted or not convicted, these are human beings who are just as much at risk as the rest of us.”
Also speaking to ITV News, a woman voiced her fears having not seen her partner at HMP Wandsworth for three weeks.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the woman claimed one elderly inmate was suffering from Covid-19 and she had been told there was no toilet roll, sanitiser or running water in her partner’s two-person cell.
On the prospect of an outbreak at HMP Wandsworth, she said: “The Government are talking about a strain on the NHS. You can only imagine the strain that one prison would be to the NHS.”
Calling for the release of all category C prisoners to relieve overcrowding, she said: “Obviously not all of them do the right thing and make the right choices, but they are paying for what any of them have done and regardless the people in there are someone’s son, someone’s loved one, someone’s dad. It’s not right at all.”
A Prison Service spokesman said: “We have strong and flexible plans in place to keep all staff and prisoners as safe as possible, and are issuing secure phone handsets to help offenders keep in contact with their families.”
Picture: A prison cell. (Paul Faith/PA).