The COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to dramatic changes in our daily lives, it has also brought deeply ingrained inequalities into sharp relief. For instance, recent research by a team of academics at Imperial College London found that while willingness to adopt social distancing measures was high across all UK socio-economic groups, the ability to socially isolate by working from home is positively associated with higher levels of education, higher incomes, greater amounts of personal savings, and home ownership. Indeed, those with the lowest household income (less than £20,000) were six times less likely to be able to work from home compared to those with household incomes of £50,000 and above. Further, writing in the Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy has evocatively captured how, while social class does not provide absolute protection from the virus, the lived experiences of the measures introduced to combat it are dramatically different for rich and poor across the globe.
It is therefore essential to place social justice concerns at the centre of our analysis of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is particularly important with regard to groups who might be socially marginalised, stigmatised, or overlooked in public debates, such as those living and working in our prisons. As many criminal justice activists have argued, prisons provide almost perfect conditions for the virus to spread. On the 17th of March SPARC (the Scottish Prisoner Advocacy and Research Collective), described the situation in Scottish prisons as a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, pointing to persistent overcrowding, high levels of staff sickness absence, the existing poor health of many people living in prison, and the risks to mental health and wellbeing inherent in self-isolating in a restricted environment. These concerns were echoed by the Howard League Scotland, who argued that overcrowding not only makes social distancing “almost impossible”, but that the pandemic risks escalating tensions within prisons, putting the safety of those living and working within them in jeopardy.
The Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service (SPS) are now in a race against time to deal with these unprecedented circumstances. On Monday 23rd March the SPS suspended all family visits in an attempt to protect against the spread of the virus. The following week, the Scottish Government passed emergency legislation allowing for the early release of certain groups of prisoners, should this measure be necessary to ensure public safety. Many activist groups have been calling for the urgent introduction of early release for some time, and in England and Wales the Ministry of Justice announced on 4th April that up to 4,000 people with less than two months left to serve would be released early on licence. In Scotland, further secondary legislation is required before any prisoners can be released under these new powers, and Parliament is in recess until 20th of April. Provisions already exist to allow eligible individuals to serve a portion of their sentence in the community on licence, whilst being monitored under Home Detention Curfew (sometimes referred to as HDC or ‘tagging’). However, changes in the Guidance for Agencies in 2018 has led to an 80% decrease in the number of people released on HDC; with the Justice Secretary tweeting on April 4th that efforts are ongoing to reverse this decline.
Thus, while some initial steps have been taken, the crisis facing our prisons has not been averted. As these debates continue at pace, there are three key areas where social work and social care professionals have a vital contribution to make. Firstly, and most urgently, social workers must have a voice in the ongoing debates surrounding early release. These have been largely framed in terms of risk, with the Justice Secretary noting that the Bill explicitly “excludes categories of high-risk prisoners” emphasising that any such release will be “subject to an appropriate level of risk assessment”. The details of such risk assessment processes are not yet clear, and it will be imperative that these are designed in consultation with the social work profession to ensure these processes are workable and to avoid excessive risk averseness, which both the Howard League Scotland and the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf have argued have contributed to the decline in use of HDC.
Involving social work and social care professionals in these debates may also lead to the interrogation of issues which have, so far, been largely neglected. For instance, social care professionals will have insights into issues such as: how will people who are released early be supported in the community to access housing, benefits and medical care? How do we guard against those with high levels of need, which often overlaps with poverty, being seen as ineligible, and therefore doubly disadvantaged? And are there particular groups of people who should be automatically considered for early release, such as pregnant women (who the Ministry of Justice recently announced would be released from prisons in England and Wales), or men in the Open Estate who already successfully undertake home leaves? If social care professionals become actively involved in these discussions, there may be scope to shift their focus from a narrow view of risk, to wider questions of health and social justice.
Secondly, as key workers, social care professionals may have important insights into the current situation within our prisons. On the 31st of March, the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, relaying concerns expressed by prison officers about the provision of PPE, and availability and distribution of other protective measures such as hand sanitiser, and the practicalities of achieving social distancing. Social work and social care professionals who are able to continue working with both prison officers and those living in our prisons will have first-hand knowledge of what is working well, and where further improvements are required. Furthermore, they will also be able to bring the expertise to assess how these measures are impacting on daily life within the prison. Given that measures to reduce isolation have been identified as essential for limiting the damage imprisonment can cause to mental health and lowering the risk of suicide, it is essential that the impact of social distancing within prisons is closely monitored.
Finally, social work and social care professionals are well-placed to support and advocate for new measures to support family relationships in the absence of face-to-face visits. Prisons in England and Wales are developing a range of innovative approaches here; while plans were already in place to increase the number of prisons with in-cell phones from 20 to 50, a further 55 prisons are being provided with non-internet enabled mobile phones to allow those in custody to stay in touch with their families. Individual establishments are also taking radical steps to support family contact, with HMP Bronzfield reducing the cost of prison phone calls by approximately 44%. Others are taking to Twitter to reach out to families, with HMP Parc and HMP Altcoursecreating radio request shows, where families can email a song choice and message for their loved one to be played on prison radio, while HMP Ranby is “taking Twitter to the men” by allowing families to use the direct messaging function to write short messages that can then be passed on. This is by no means an exhaustive list of innovative practice across prisons, but is illustrative of what can be achieved when criminal justice professionals work together creatively and collaboratively.
However, while positive initiatives have been introduced in response to the pandemic, we must not lose sight of the urgent need for further action. Visits were suspended a fortnight ago, and while updates on a proposed technical solution have been promised this week, measures to support family contact remain limited. As almost a quarter of prison officers are now absent from work, individual prisons and their staff teams are under increasing pressure, with many of the activities which make prisons more survivable, such as work, education and gym sessions, cancelled to promote social distancing. While Scotland has currently 60 people in prisons who are self-isolating, and has fortunately yet to report any fatalities, in England two members of prison staffand three prisoners have died from the virus. Epidemiologists have warned that failure to take steps to maximise social distancing in prisons could lead to up to 800 preventable deaths in prisons in England and Wales alone.
Thus, this is not a time for complacency, or for sequestered debates and decisions as who might be categorised as high or low risk. Rather, we must begin an open conversation about the competing demands felt by justice system, and how fundamental needs such as physical health, mental wellbeing, feelings of safety, access to services, and support for relationships can be met for those living and working within our prisons (both in the prison, and in the community). This will not only support efforts to tackle the spread of the virus, but may also produce transformative insights as to how our justice institutions can and should work in the future.
Dr. Cara Jardine, University of Strathclyde, Monday 6 April.