The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (Wednesday 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.

The documents reveal that the government was warned in late March that as many as 3,500 people in prison could die during the pandemic. This is in stark contrast to updated advice published by the Ministry of Justice a month later, which estimated that 100 people would die.

In their reply to the charities, the government’s lawyers confirmed that the programme of releases had not been abandoned. They stated that, as of 28 April, 200 people in prison had been approved for temporary release and a further 300 were being considered with further information awaited. However, the programme of temporary releases remains very limited.

While the charities have not issued judicial review proceedings at this time, they continue to monitor the position closely. Their latest letter to the Secretary of State, sent today, calls on the government to publish advice promptly in future, to reveal its plans to ease restrictions in prisons, and to extend the temporary release scheme.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“Our vital role as civil society organisations is to hold the government to account. The documents that we are publishing today would never have seen the light of day, were it not for our legal intervention. Transparency is essential in a time of crisis.

“We also have a responsibility to keep probing, to hold ministers to their promises, and to call for action. That is what we are doing now.

“As things stand, the government strategy in prisons rests on levels of isolation that amount to prolonged solitary confinement. It is neither sustainable nor humane.

“Positive steps to create space in prisons would make them more purposeful and save lives.”

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The documents we are publishing show that what appears to be containment of the virus in prisons at present still rests on the most fragile of foundations.

“Sticking to the current regime of almost universal bang up simply isn’t sustainable for the next 12 months. And without government intervention, the prison population is bound to return to previous levels as courts come back into action. A much more generous early release scheme remains an essential part of what is needed to keep people safe.

“We welcome the invitation to work together. Everyone who lives or works in prisons has a stake in doing so. For that to happen, what matters now is that the government pro-actively shares its plans for the future and the advice on which they are based.”

The charities’ letter states: “It is clear that the risk [from coronavirus] is only contained while admissions to custody remain low and prisoners remain effectively in solitary confinement. That is unsustainable for any long period. Yet it is anticipated that these conditions will need to be maintained for a further 12 months if the virus is to be controlled. That risks serious harm to tens of thousands of prisoners and provides further evidence for the need to progress with the programme of releases.”

The letter goes on to say: “The restrictions on the prison regime mean that people in prison are either in overcrowded conditions or prolonged solitary confinement. The damage inflicted on individuals’ psychological health and prospects of progression by current regimes will become intolerable. The courts will start to resume work and crime is likely to rise as lockdown restrictions in the community are lifted. Inter-prison transfers will become essential in order to make space in local prisons.”

Confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in more than half of prisons in England and Wales. As of 5pm on Monday (4 May), 362 prisoners have tested positive across 74 prisons. A total of 401 prison staff, working in 67 prisons, and 13 Prisoner Escort and Custody Services staff have also tested positive.