Policy

As we all adapt to the increased restrictions on our daily lives in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have turned to technology to help keep in touch with our loved ones at a time of enforced separation.

For people with a loved one in prison, this is an especially challenging time, with all prisons now closed to visitors. Keeping in touch is more important than ever in these circumstances, and the government has issued guidance to help families and friends to maintain their relationships during the lockdown.

Following discussion with families who currently have a loved one in prison, Prison Reform Trust associate Sarah Beresford reflects on the role that allowing greater use of virtual visits could play in helping people in prison and their loved ones through the Covid-19 pandemic, and beyond.

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Our work and response to Covid-19

17/03/2020 13:00:00

Like all organisations and individuals the Prison Reform Trust has been closely monitoring the developments and government advice following the Covid-19 outbreak. The safety of those who live and work in our prisons and that of PRT staff is our priority. In light of the latest government advice we are taking measures to uphold our collective safety, whilst continuing to deliver vital services to those in prison.

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Commenting on the findings of today’s (7 February) National Audit Office report on improving the prison estate, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

 

“This startlingly frank report says that the government is failing to provide safe, secure and decent prisons. It describes in forensic detail how a succession of plans have disintegrated almost as soon as they have been announced, resulting in a failure to build new prisons, or close old ones, or maintain the current prison estate in a useable condition. To cap it all, there is no plan in place for the future.

“Scarcely a week passes without another high profile announcement of longer sentences or delayed release dates, despite the absence of any evidence that more imprisonment does anything to deter or reduce crime. This report exposes the recklessness of that approach, sending people to a prison system that shames us as a country, and all too often serves only to entrench the behaviour it is supposed to change.”


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Responding to the proposed introduction of emergency legislation, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“Public concern over apparently random attacks carried out by people who have served time in prison for terrorist offences is completely understandable—as is the government’s desire to respond. But we saw with the hurried implementation of an election promise to increase prison time for people convicted of certain sexual and violent offences, that parliamentary scrutiny, at least in the Commons, was negligible. A government with a big majority has a special duty to proceed with caution.

“Terrorism has always posed a very particular set of challenges for criminal justice systems. There are examples from history both in this country and overseas where poorly thought through or disproportionate reactions are likely to have made things worse rather than better in the long run. Unfair treatment or disproportionate punishment are both effective recruiting sergeants.

“So politicians should be very wary of creating expectations that no civilised system of justice can deliver. Risk cannot be completely eliminated and our powers of prediction are always imperfect. Prison has its place but it cannot become a means to protect indefinitely.”

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The Prison Reform Trust, along with 15 other criminal justice organisations, has co-signed a letter to the leaders of the Brexit Party, Conservative Party, Democratic Unionist Party, Green Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and Scottish National Party.

The letter, calls on all party leaders to temper their language in regard to law and order so that sensitive issues of intense public concern are not exploited but are used to contribute to a reasoned and constructive public debate.

You can read a copy of the full letter by clicking 'read more'

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Report finds just one in 10 safer custody departments in prisons answer phone calls from worried family members.

New research reveals that most prisons in England and Wales are failing in their duty to ensure that emergency phone lines are in place for families to share urgent concerns about self-harm and suicide risks of relatives in prison. This is in serious breach of government policy that families should be able to share concerns ‘without delay’.

At a time of unprecedented levels of self-harm in prisons, charities are calling on prisons to protect the lives of people in prison and address these critical failures. In 12 months to March 2019 there were 58,000 self-harm incidents in prisons – compared to 26,000 a decade earlier.

A joint report by the Prison Reform Trust, INQUEST and Pact (the Prison Advice and Care Trust), maps the provision of safer custody telephone lines across the prison estate - dedicated phone lines which enable family members and others to pass on urgent information when they have concerns.

It finds that provision is patchy, under-resourced and even non-existent in some prisons, leaving families struggling to share their concerns with prison staff.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Commenting on today's (31 October) report on prison governance published by the House of Commons Justice Committee, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: 

"This report is a scathing indictment of a political failure. The Government doesn't hesitate to promise more jail time for more people, but it has no plan for how to deliver a decent, safe or effective prison system to accommodate them.

"People's lives and public safety are at stake, and making 'policy by press notice' isn't good enough. The people who live and work in prison deserve to be told when overcrowding will end, and dilapidated prisons finally be shut."

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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While articles declare our prisons have gone ‘soft’, the truth is that sentencing is much, much tougher than it used to be. We have a higher proportion of life sentenced prisoners than any other country in Europe, including Russia and Turkey.

You may be thinking, ‘but why is that a bad thing. Surely harsher sentences deter would-be criminals?’ Life would be a whole lot simpler if that were true, but there isn’t a scrap of evidence so suggest it is. There’s simply no link between the severity of sentencing in different countries and their crime rate.

Writing for The Metro, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, examines the recent announcements on criminal justice made in the Queen's Speech.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Commenting on today's (1 October) announcement by Robert Buckland that he will legislate to increase the custodial period served for some sentences, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This is no way to make sentencing policy. There has been no review worthy of the name. In cases where the risk to the public is high, judges already have the power to do everything the Lord Chancellor says he wants. And sentencing for serious crime has already become dramatically more severe under every government this century. Yet despite all of that, the research evidence is that the public thinks sentencing is softer than it really is.

“But telling the truth about what’s actually happened on sentencing, and leaving judges free to consider the facts of the individual case, doesn’t win votes. This is the worst sort of politics—one day in the limelight paid for by decades of injustice to come.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Following the Prime Minister’s announcements about prisons in mid-August, we wrote three letters seeking clarification, to Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton, to the Secretary of State, Robert Buckland and to the CEO of HMPPS, Jo Farrar. To their collective credit, they have replied only three weeks later, and with some detail.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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