Guest post by Dr Laura Janes and Andrew Neilson: The government’s treatment of prisoners in our locked-down prisons is cruel and untenable

I am pleased to host this guest blogpost by Dr Laura Janes and Andrew Neilson. Dr Laura Lanes is the legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform and oversees its specialist legal service for children and young adults. Andrew Neilson is the director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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It is scary to think how quickly we get used to terrible things.  Just a few months ago, many of us anxiously watched as the number of people who had died from the Coronavirus approached one hundred, then a thousand.  Since March we have become so acclimatised to the new horrific reality that we see less than one hundred deaths a day as comparatively good news.

For several years the Howard League has been concerned about the use of solitary confinement for limited periods of time on individual people in prison.

In 2017 we brought a judicial review on behalf of AB, a child who routinely spent 23 hours a day confined to his cell for 55 days when he was just 15 years old at Feltham prison.  The Government conceded much of the claim, as it had failed to comply with its own procedures which are designed to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place given the serious and irreversible risks associated with solitary confinement.  Whether what happened to AB was inhuman and degrading will be examined by the Supreme Court next year.  Following our case, numerous professional and scrutiny bodies including the BMA, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Chief Inspector of Prisons expressed grave concerns about the practice of keeping children in solitary confinement in prison, noting it happens too often and for too long.

But what has concerned a relatively small number of prisoners, has now become the new normal.

Some 80,000 men women and children in prison are either in prolonged solitary confinement or in overcrowded conditions.  In a single day, 24 March 2020, the prison service went into lockdown and over 80 days on, it remains in that state.  Prisons are devoid of purposeful activity and opportunities for people to make amends.  The children in prison have had no education, rates of self-harm in women’s prisons have increased and the entire estate has been starved of contact with the outside world.  Open prisons no longer serve their function of preparing people for the community.

In a letter to the Justice Committee Dame Anne Owers, Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board highlighted a number of concerns, including reports of increases in self-harm, self-inflicted deaths and violence in some prisons.  She reports particular concerns about the “cumulative impact of lockdown, particularly on prisoners who have, or are developing, mental health conditions.”

Children and young people in prison call the Howard League’s legal advice line every day.  They tell us about their experiences, confined to cells the size of a car parking space, worried about their parents and grandparents.  Many have lost all sense of time due to being confined to their cells for 22 hours or more a day.  One young person described feeling constantly hungry due to the restrictions on the additional food that teenage boys can usually order from the canteen system and regularly rely on to supplement the meagre prison diet.  He told us he sleeps all day to try and forget his hunger.  A child, who until recently was leaving prison each day to attend college on a temporary licence, described the experience of prison now as “just waiting.”  These experiences are typical.  Both young people were also typical – young black boys.  The secure estate for children is a manifestation of discrimination  –  half of all children in prison are from ethnic minorities, compared to their making up only around a fifth of children from 10-17 in the wider population.  A third of children in prison are on remand, two thirds of whom will not go on to get a prison sentence.

We subsequently discovered that on the same day that prisons went into lockdown, ministers had received advice that as many as 3,500 prisoners might die – one in twenty of those in prison – if action was not taken to reduce the prison population by 15,000.  In response to this advice, the Ministry of Justice locked down our prisons immediately and announced on 4 April 2020 that it would release some 4000 prisoners on temporary licence under electronic tag.  It has recently emerged that the Ministry of Justice entered into contracts with private providers to supply these tags at a cost of £4,000,000.

This information only came to light after the Howard League, along with the Prison Reform Trust, took the unusual step of challenging the government’s failure to follow through on its promise to release the 4000 prisoners.

By 17 April just four people had been released under the Covid temporary release scheme. The two charities served a letter before action on the government setting out our concerns and threatening to serve proceedings if the government did not respond satisfactorily. The thrust of the challenge was that it was irrational and unlawful for the government to announce it would release a substantial number of prisoners to save lives in response to the threat of COVID-19 but not to have done it.

In response to this letter before action, the government provided a detailed letter explaining that the advice had changed and that while the release programme had not been abandoned (indeed, we were told a further two hundred applications had been approved), a high volume of releases was no longer required. Instead a range of strategies were being employed to protect lives of people in prison. The government disclosed more than a dozen key documents to us on 28 April to support its arguments and subsequently gave us permission to publish its response and the documents it disclosed. In light of this, it could no longer be said that the government’s failure to release thousands of prisoners was irrational and we took the decision not to issue proceedings at that point in time.

As well as the original PHE advice from March, the government produced subsequent advice dated 24 Aprilwhich found early emerging data that the ‘explosive outbreaks’ of COVID-19 in prison which were feared at the beginning of the pandemic wave are not being seen. Accordingly, PHE revised its estimate of prisoner deaths from the virus from up to a reasonable worst-case scenario of 3,500 to a best-case scenario of around 100, provided severely restricted regimes remain in place for up to a year.  As the courts return to business, we will see the prison population increase.  It is unclear how the methods that have been used so far to contain the virus will be manageable with an influx in people entering prison.

The release scheme has not been abandoned but it remains painfully slow – as of 29 May 2020, just 128 people had been released.  This is despite the fact that a month earlier we had been told that some 200 applications had been approved.

Where does that leave us?  The decision not to release a substantial number of prisoners under the temporary release scheme may no longer be so unreasonable as to be irrational but its consequences are cruel.  As our latest letter to the Justice Secretary highlights, the current situation is inhumane and untenable. It is also unlawful and is likely to result in untold and potentially irreversible harm to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.  Let’s hope the government takes action and we do not need to initiate another legal challenge.

The Howard League has published all its correspondence on the prisons and Covid on a dedicated page on its website.

Ignorant, dishonest or both? Boris Johnson’s ramblings about prisoners and spa breaks are divorced from reality.

As today’s resignation announcement by the Prime Minister prefigures, in bookmakers’ eyes at least, the dawn of a Boris Johnson premiership, I thought it worth typing up a thread I posted earlier this week in response to Mr Johnson’s latest column for the Daily Telegraph.

On Monday, the former Foreign Secretary proudly promoted his article on Twitter:

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Taking a swipe at “our cock-eyed crook-coddling criminal justice system”, Mr Johnson alighted upon a story, reported by outlets including the Telegraph, concerning a convicted drug dealer called Luke Jewitt. Mr Jewitt was sentenced to imprisonment in 2014 for his involvement in a multi-million-pound conspiracy to import or supply cocaine, only to be released to enjoy a “luxury spa break” with his mother before his sentence had been served. According to the Telegraph,

“He is believed to have spent the day at the Santai Spa in Birmingham for Mother’s Day, at the end of March.

The spa boasts an outdoor jacuzzi with lake views, salt cave and mosaic hot-stone loungers. Packages at the luxury venue cost up to £140 per day.”

There is no suggestion that this was paid for by anyone other than Mr Jewitt; rather outrage is invited at the notion of a prisoner being released early, which, the writer assures us, “is becoming more and more regular”. As the headline has it, “Letting drug dealers out of prison to go on spa breaks is criminally stupid”. Unfortunately, in making this argument Mr Johnson’s characteristic fidelity to facts and detail abandons him.

Let’s see if we can reacquaint them.

Luke Jewitt was sentenced in 2014. The precise sentence he received is unclear. If you believe The Telegraph (left), it was 10 years’ imprisonment. If you believe Boris Johnson writing in The Telegraph (right), it was nine years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But either way, at something approaching the halfway point of his sentence, he was released on temporary licence (or “let out on day release”, in the tabloid argot), during which time he attended the aforementioned spa. Mr Johnson’s apoplexy is untrammelled:

Not merely a jacuzzi, dear readers, but a visit to the National Sea Life Centre. Is nothing sacred?

From this starting point, Mr Johnson lines up a medley of propositions. Some highlights are below.

In summary:

  • Drug dealing causes untold misery (undoubtedly true);
  • Prisons are at once too ghastly and too cushy (the record rates of violence, death, suicide and self-harm cast a degree of doubt on the latter);
  • We need to be “tough” on those who carry knives (standard political fare, with the standard blank space when it comes to offering a practical working definition of what being “tough” should entail).

We are then offered the writer’s considered views on the thorny issue of stop and search. Fortunately, contrary to research suggesting that stop and search is deployed in a racially discriminatory manner, Mr Johnson reassures us that it, in fact, isn’t. He is not able to offer any evidence for this claim, but his word is surely his bond.

As for his primary concern, the early release of offenders, Mr Johnson has identified the culprits: it is the “politically correct” Parole Board, responsible for endangering public safety by licensing rapists to reoffend and drug kingpins to purify and replenish with naturally detoxifying algae leaving the skin looking refined, toned and beautifully radiant. The release of Luke Jewitt, Johnson posits in a puddle of consciousness, is an example of the “need to root out the Leftist culture of so much of the criminal justice establishment.”

There are a few problems with this thesis. Firstly, the case “earlier this month” to which Mr Johnson refers involving “the convicted rapist out on early release”, who “allegedly commit several more rapes immediately”. Assuming that this is the case which has made headlines (and about which we must be cautious due to criminal proceedings now being live), the man involved was not a convicted rapist, but a burglar. And this was not a case in which the Parole Board had directed his release; rather it was reported that due to an administrative error, he was released by the prison having erroneously bypassed the Parole Board. To lay this at the Parole Board’s door is, to quote Mary Whitehouse (probably), pretty fucking dishonest.

But beyond this mangled non-example, the foundation of Johnson’s argument betrays a woeful ignorance of the entire subject matter. He seems to be under the impression that a prisoner’s release is always governed by the Parole Board. It’s not. For the vast majority of prisoners serving a standard determinate sentence, release on licence is automatic once you’ve served half of your prison sentence. I’ve blogged before on this, as it’s frequently misunderstood.

Parole Boards tend to focus their attentions on dangerous prisoners, including those sentenced to life imprisonment or to other types of sentence for which release is not automatic, such as now-abolished imprisonment for public protection (IPP), or “extended sentences” imposed on a dangerous offenders. In order to be released from such sentences, a prisoner has to persuade the Parole Board that his incarceration is longer necessary for the protection of the public. Now Parole Boards are far from perfect; the case last year of John Worboys gave a troubling insight into the errors that plagued the Parole Board’s decision to direct his release, and it would be naive to conclude that this is an isolated case. No doubt errors occur, and quite possibly more frequently than we perhaps wish to imagine. However, Johnson’s claim that “It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes” is accompanied by absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, if we were trading in boring facts, we might observe that England & Wales has more prisoners serving indeterminate and life sentences than any other country in Europe, suggesting that neither courts nor Parole Boards are overly eager on the frivolous release of dangerous prisoners. But the assertion that there is a recent acceleration in the release of dangerous offenders is simply that. There is not even a whiff of evidence tendered in support.

But back to drug lords, and other prisoners whose release is not dependent on the approval of the Parole Board. They are all entitled to automatic release at the halfway point of their sentence, and as they approach that point can be entitled to release on temporary licence (ROTL), subject to a risk assessment. Full details are available here, but a summary of the types of ROTL is below.

It is this scheme which Johnson describes as “criminally stupid”. Letting prisoners out for the odd day here and there – what possible good can it do? Well, quite a lot, the evidence suggests. A recent government report – a government of which Mr Johnson was, until toys exeunted the pram, a member – concluded that the analysis was is “consistent with the conclusion that ROTL reduces reoffending”. So even if the notion of somebody serving a few days’ less on their sentence fills you with righteous indignation, the evidence that it makes us all a little safer is a fairly important fact to omit from an honest discussion.

That all said, there remains an understandable public bugbear when it comes to the concept of automatic release at the halfway stage of a prison sentence. I’ve written about this in my book. The public hear or read “10 years”, and feel justifiably deceived when they discover that 10 means 5 (minus any time already served on remand awaiting trial or sentence). Now there are reasons as to why we grant automatic release halfway through a sentence. One reason is that this mechanism saves the government money, gifting them the tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without the Treasury having to actually pay for them. Less cynically, it is also argued that it helps reintegrate prisoners into society and aids rehabilitation. If they reoffend on licence, they can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence.

But let’s park that debate to one side. Instead, let’s ask why we have automatic halfway release at all? Which MPs were in Parliament when such a thing was introduced?

Well, automatic release at the halfway stage of all determinate sentences has been a fixture since the enactment of section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Present in Parliament as an MP when this legislation passed was one Boris Johnson. Can you guess how many impassioned speeches he gave in the Commons against the “criminally stupid” idea of automatically releasing prisoners early? In fact, how many times has he ever spoken in Parliament about early release, or the Parole Board, or release on temporary licence?

From wherever springs this yearning to draw public attention to the horrors of early release on licence, it has lain dormant for a good sixteen years. Heaven forfend that this newly-discovered zeal for making the lives of prisoners more miserable and antagonistic baiting of “politically correct” and “left wing” criminal justice is merely the latest exploit of a populist charlatan tossing bucketfulls of cheap fatty red meat to the Party Faithful just as a certain job opening emerges.