PRT comment: Hidden Harms Summit

21/05/2020 15:50:00

Commenting on today’s announcement by the government ahead of the Hidden Harms Summit, Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manager at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“We welcome the Hidden Harms initiative and the Prime Minister’s commitment to ‘support the most vulnerable and keep them safe from harm and exploitation’.

“Official figures show that nearly 60% of women in prison are victims/survivors of domestic abuse and this is likely to be an underestimate. Far from helping them, the state often compounds their victimisation. Many have been driven to offend by their experience of abuse. Yet while victims of trafficking rightly have a statutory defence where they are compelled to offend, there is no such legal protection for domestic abuse survivors. The government should use the Domestic Abuse Bill to modernise the law by providing equivalent legal defences.”

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Commenting on the findings of today’s report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, Director for Prison Reform Trust said:

“This important report shows why there is absolutely no room for complacency about the crisis in our prisons. People are sharing cells with someone who might or might not be carrying the virus. They are spending weeks on end in an overcrowded cell for 23 and a half hours a day. Some sick prisoners have gone a fortnight without a shower. Prison managers, staff and prisoners have worked together to make the best of an impossible situation. They all deserve praise for doing so.

“By contrast, ministers have not done all they could to help. These three prisons are still overcrowded, but just one person has been released early to make space. To make matters worse, a much larger number of people are still being recalled to serve just a few days inside, despite the obvious risks. The current situation is obviously not sustainable, and will stop making sense as restrictions in the community start to ease and receptions into prison increase. It’s time for ministers to step up and end the overcrowding which turns a difficult situation into a dangerous one.”

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The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (6 May) published more than a dozen key documents that shed further light on the government’s response to coronavirus in prisons in England and Wales.

Lawyers for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice last month, threatening legal action over the government’s failure to release more people from prison during the pandemic. Now the charities have been granted permission by the government to publish its reply, including enclosures that provide more information about developments in the situation behind bars and the advice given to ministers.

At the same time, the charities have written another letter to the Secretary of State, warning that the current conditions that are said to have been containing the virus so far are unsustainable in the medium to longer term.

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Commenting on the announcement today by the Ministry of Justice, Jenny Earle Women’s Programme Director for Prison Reform Trust said:

“Whilst any additional funding to divert vulnerable women from the criminal justice system is welcome, £2.5m for women’s support services will have to be very thinly spread if it is to include establishing a residential women’s centre in Wales. The government needs to confirm adequate sustainable funding for struggling women’s services, now more critical than ever to ensuring hard-pressed police, courts and prisons have somewhere safe and effective to refer women for help in turning their lives around.”

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As part of the Prison Reform Trust's continuing efforts to scrutinise the government's response to managing Covid-19 in our prisons, our director Peter Dawson has submitted his latest evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee today.

PRT continues to share evidence with the committee, drawn from our contact with people in prison and those working to support them during this exceptionally difficult time, in addition to our policy and advocacy work to improve public transparency in the government's advice and decision making.

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"I understand the disappointment at our decision not to take the government to court. Fundamentally, our case was that we believed the Lord Chancellor was ignoring advice that around 15,000 prisoners needed to be released in the interests of safety. What we have discovered through the action is that the situation is fluid and that the Government’s current position is informed by the public health advice that was published last Friday. Our lawyers have therefore advised that the most effective way forward at this time is to continue to apply pressure.

"We are not giving up. Managing the pandemic in prisons puts enormous strain on those who live and work in our prisons, and those who care for them. The need for there to be many fewer people in prison will not change and we will continue to make that case. The information we have gained this week because of the threat of legal action will be crucial in doing that. But we have to do it in the way we think is most likely to get the right result."

Peter Dawson
Director

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Commenting on the findings of today’s (30 April) report by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This is a deeply shaming report. It shows how far below the standards of a civilised country our prison system has fallen. While attention is naturally focussed on managing the immediate crisis, this searing account highlights the reasons why that task has been made exponentially more difficult, and why we should never return to ‘business as usual’ in our prisons. As the committee rightly observes, overcrowding lies at the root of the problem and the government cannot build its way out of all the harms it causes. The solution lies in a radical change in who we send to prison, and for how long.”

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On Tuesday 28 April 2020 the government’s lawyers responded to our letter before claim threatening judicial review proceedings. The challenge centred on the Secretary of State for Justice’s failure to release people from prison despite the government’s announcement of 4 April 2020 that this was required in response to Covid-19.

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Following the publication of the Ministry of Justice report, Tackling racial disparity in the criminal justice system: 2020 in February this year, the HMPPS External Advice and Scrutiny Panel (EASP)—established following David Lammy's independent review in 2017—wrote to raise its concerns that it had been wrongly represented.

The report did not make clear that the EASP continued to have concerns that safeguards to address racially disproportionate outcomes in use of force were inadequate, and that they were very likely to persist in the use of PAVA incapacitant spray. 

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The Prison Service has now published guidance about prison releases in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Full details are included in documents called ‘End of Custody Temporary Release’ and ‘Covid-19: Use of Compassionate ROTL’ which can be found by clicking here.

We have summarised some of the key points of these policies, which you can read by clicking here.

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