Little news leaks out about the current conditions in British gaols. The Johnson Government manages such information as assiduously as they do about their Covid-19 policies in general at the daily tame press briefings. Nobody must ever mention their ‘herd immunity’ policy, their lack of preparedness for the virus which has led to a mass lock-down of the population, a calamitous failure in providing PPE to health and care workers. They are now even running out of gowns for health workers.
The daily death toll which should be a source of horror, drifts past – yesterday 847 bringing the total to 14,576 – actually much higher as it does not include deaths in care homes or at home. 61 health and social care workers are known to have died from Covid-19. Health and care workers continue – despite disciplinary threats – to blow the whistle on their deadly conditions of work. Whilst it is good to see large-scale support for the NHS, nobody should have to be a ‘hero’ to do their job. Nobody should have to die to do their job because of the fecklessness of the Johnson government.
If our rulers don’t worry about health workers they care even less about prisoners. We can only guess at the dire situation in prisons. Half the prisons in England/Wales have confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 255 prisoners testing positive across 62 jails. 138 prison staff are infected in 49 prisons plus 7 Prisoner Escort staff. Rates of infection doubled in 10 days.13 prisoners and 3 prison staff have died.
Robert Buckland, Secretary of State for Justice, had announced an Early Release scheme for those within two months of the end of their sentence – potentially 3500 prisoners. Because of the paucity of news, many people think this has already happened. In fact only a handful had been released before the scheme was suspended after 6 prisoners were mistakenly released. Only 14 women who are pregnant or have babies have been released early.
In contrast to many other countries which have released thousands, precisely nothing has been done in the UK to reduce the prison population despite dire warnings from all sides about the dangers of Covid-19 spreading rapidly in prisons. On 14 April the Prison Governors Association, who know how serious the situation has become, said:
‘We continue to call on government to make the brave and bold decision to release more men and women from prisons. The current proposals do not go far enough and will not reduce overcrowding enough… Time is not on our side.’
On 17 April, lawyers for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust sent a letter to Robert Buckland over the government’s failure to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic in prisons. The letter gives details of a proposed application for judicial review in relation to the Secretary of State’s response “to the obvious need…to substantially reduce the prison population to save lives and avoid a public health catastrophe both within prisons and beyond”. (See their letter at http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/PressPolicy/News/vw/1/ItemID/845)
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League, said: “The Secretary of State has accepted publicly that the number of people in prison must be reduced significantly in order to save lives. However, this has not – and cannot – be achieved by the measures that the government currently has in place. The rate of infection is accelerating, and the window of opportunity to protect people is vanishing. Ministers must rise to this challenge and act immediately to avert a public health catastrophe.”
No prisoner should die because of this Government’s neglect and political cowardice (they do not want to upset their hang’em and flog’em supporters) and no political prisoner – as Julian Assange is – should be kept in prison under such horrific circumstances. His life is at grave risk.
Supporters of Julian Assange should email Robert Buckland not only demanding that there be a substantial reduction in the prison population to prevent this catastrophe engulfing prisons but also that Julian Assange should be released. He is an unconvicted prisoner, has serious health problems, has family ties in the UK and presents zero risk.