By Maxine Walker
Political Landscape and Failures
In the past weeks it has become clear that the Government, at the outset strongly wedded to the absurd doctrine of ‘herd immunity and let the old and infirm die’, has criminally failed to organise a scientific, well-resourced response to the Covid-19 Virus. In panic, as predicted deaths mounted, it turned to the crude measure of last resort – mass lockdown. This measure, necessitated by the Government’s early inaction and lack of planning, has inevitably led to untold social, psychological and economic suffering. Not of course for the rich and privileged whose corporations have been bailed out and who have their safe boltholes always ready. As the Spectator suggested to its readers: “Give yourself something to look forward to in lockdown with these six wines to try in April” including 2012 La Bollinger Grande Année Champagne at a £115 a bottle. Meanwhile a million new claims have been made for paltry Universal Credit.
The virus – which has by 6 April had claimed 5,373 lives (an underestimate which does not include people dying in care homes or at home) has ruthlessly probed and found failing almost every practical system we might reasonably have thought existed. Where are the tests? Where is the protective equipment for NHS workers at least 12 of whom have now died? Where are hospital beds and ventilators? Where is the safety net for the working class, homeless and hungry? It has inevitably found the most vulnerable in enormously unequal societies. Already US figures are emerging that show much higher infection and death rates among the working class whilst in the UK we have seen 10 London bus and tube drivers die. It has shone a revealing spotlight onto Britain’s rulers and we have seen them, frozen in this spotlight like guilty people caught in the act of murder, an ideologically-driven elite of staggering callousness, dishonesty and ineptitude.
The Labour opposition and broader liberal opinion has gone AWOL. What’s new, we might ask? Many lies about the UK government’s response to Covid-19 – matters of life and death – remain unchallenged by mainstream media just as lies about the war in Iraq remained in place until Julian Assange and WikiLeaks published the detailed unvarnished truth. Without truth there is no way of holding the powerful to account.
The reality however is emerging. The governing classes are both unwilling and unable to provide either the strategy or resources to fight against the Covid-19 Virus. Unable because of their reckless hollowing out of public services, particularly the health services, which has left it utterly unprepared for a pandemic. Unwilling because of their profound contempt and disregard for the mass of the UK population. The attitudes displayed (and exposed by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks) during their imperialist wars in the Middle East are now visible at home.
Who will forget the tactlessly direct statement of our rulers view expressed by Jeremy Warner, economics journalist writing in the Telegraph: ‘From an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.’ Whilst cheerfully throwing the aged and disabled overboard – an attitude which virus-like now threatens to spread more widely – it has also simply ignored even more forgotten sections of society such as prisoners and other detainees.
Situation in Prisons and Detention Centres
There are 82,589 prisoners in the UK – the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. Of the 59,000 people sent to prison in England and Wales in 2018, 69% had committed non-violent offences and 46% were serving sentences of 6 months or less. Additionally, in 2019 people on remand made up one in 10 people in prison – 8,957 people, 65% of whom are awaiting trial. These are the people whose lives are now gravely threatened by Covid-19 in prisons across the UK.
Loud alarms have been sounding for weeks now about what may happen in prisons once the virus enters as it has now done. In an open letter, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust warned the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, that failure to act immediately could lead to loss of life on an unprecedented scale.
On 16 March the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) highlighted the danger and called for the release of the following groups of prisoners:
• Everybody aged over 75, no matter what their conviction.
• Those over 50 convicted of non-violent/sex crimes.
• People held under immigration detention powers, whether in prison or
• All those who have under a year of their sentence left to serve.
• All prisoners with physical disabilities.
• People awaiting extradition.
• Imprisonment for Public Protection Prisoners whose tariffs have expired.
The very high risks of spread in enclosed environments, care homes, prisons, ships for example, are well known. A US study of the current pandemic showed the speed and lethality of spread of Covid-19 both within and between local care homes. One case identified on Feb 28 in one care home was linked to 167 further cases amongst patients, staff and visitors at several homes and 35 deaths within 2 weeks. US Navy Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier was relieved of his command for raising his fears for the lives of 4000 sailors confined on the ship. 173 have tested positive for Covid-19 as has Captain Crozier.
Prisons show even greater lethal potential with prisoners (many of whom have underlying physical and mental health conditions) overcrowded in unhygienic conditions with poor infection control and medical facilities. Little Personal Protection Equipment has reached prison staff – equipment which safeguards both them and the prisoners with whom they have close contact. In the US, Rikers Island prison now shows an infection rate 8 times higher than for New York City as a whole and 200 prisoners have tested positive. Left unchecked the virus is a potential death sentence for people in prison.
In the UK, as on every other front, warnings have been ignored and very little was done to prepare effectively for this rising danger in prisons. Prisons initially excluded visitors, locked down prisoners and potentially dangerously cohorted and isolated together those with the virus and those who may have it. 9 prisoners have now died. Three were inmates at HMP Littlehey in Cambridgeshire and one in London’s Belmarsh gaol. Some 118 prisoners had tested positive for coronavirus by 5 April. There are 37 prison staff in 12 jails who have tested positive and 2 staff members at Pentonville have died. 26% of prison staff are absent or self-isolating leaving a drastically reduced regime for prisoners .
Whereas in other countries large numbers of prisoners have been released, here it was announced that pregnant women were being released but in reality by 7 April only 6 had been. Another group identified for release with tags was prisoners within two months of their release date – potentially about 3500 but it has been made clear that will take considerable time. According to the Prison Governors Association, this number will be far smaller once stringent guidelines have been followed: ‘We need to create sufficient headroom in our prisons, to reduce cell sharing and develop isolation units to safeguard both staff and prisoners. The PGA questions whether this particular initiative goes far enough.’ This possible reduction of prisoner numbers is a tiny percentage of the prison population. It is a pathetic response by the Government to a potential disaster. One US state alone, California plans to release 6,500 prisoners almost double the UK plans. Following the announcement of 9 prisoner deaths, demands were raised to release 15,000 prisoners. It is reported that this has been recommended by Public Health England and the Prison Service. However at the Justice Committee meeting on 7 April, Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland gave no sign of this taking place and little recognition of the danger facing prisoners. He said: ‘it was important to recall that there would be no release of thousands at one fell swoop.’
See notes of Justice Committee meeting here.
Focus on Julian Assange
It is in this hellish situation that the UK’s best known political prisoner Julian Assange remains on remand in Belmarsh. It is clear from its record of persecution, torture and judicial bias in Julian Assange’s case, that the British authorities have no intention of exceptionally releasing him despite (or in their case because of) the fact that he has committed no crime whatsoever other than revealing the ghastly truth about imperialist wars. He is a political prisoner. He already has severe health problems which render him vulnerable to the virus. He should not be in prison at all.
Despite having no access to his lawyers during the current crisis, on 7 April a court ruled that his extradition hearing on 18 May will go ahead. Deaf to pleas from human rights organisations, authorities have ruled that he will not be bailed and must stay in Belmarsh. His fate is now therefore joined to that of the rest of the prison population.
It is imperative that we amplify calls for a large and rapid reduction of the prison population, such as that made by the PAS which has identified those categories of prisoners – including prisoners awaiting extradition – who should be released to prevent large-scale deaths in prison. If prisoners are to be released, Julian Assange must be among them. At the Justice Committee meeting, Robert Buckland said he had powers already, such as compassionate release for those with life threatening illness or medical reasons, and was exercising those powers for some prisoners who were vulnerable. We must demand that he exercises those powers for Julian Assange. Additionally, we must maintain the political campaign for Julian Assange to be freed and for the government to refuse his extradition to the USA and drop the charade of judicial proceedings.
Julian Assange exposed imperialist war crimes. Today, even as the virus rages through the world the criminal ruling class which has devastated poor nations continues to commit crimes such as tightening illegal sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. This will severely hamper their fight against Covid-19 and lead to many deaths. More war crimes. Now – as the ruling class consigns many of its own citizens to death – we too see the monster. We have to fight back and a key part of that fightback is our democratic right to know the truth. The symbol of that right is Julian Assange. He must be freed.