Prison release schemes almost impossible to deliver, says watchdog

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

Prisoners in England and Wales have been left confused by high-profile government announcements that led them to believe thousands of inmates would be temporarily released to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus behind bars, a prison deaths watchdog has said.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC) concluded the early release schemes were “hard to understand, difficult to explain and close to impossible to deliver”, following a review of hundreds of messages sent by inmates to prison radio.

On 4 April, the Ministry of Justice said up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for the end of custody temporary release (ECTR) scheme, in addition to freeing pregnant women and mothers of babies. The government also committed to releasing vulnerable prisoners, of whom there are about 1,200, through compassionate release.

Seventy-nine people have been released under the ECTR scheme, while about 22 pregnant women and mothers of babies have been freed and fewer than 10 vulnerable prisoners released.

The IAPDC analysed more than 200 messages sent to prison radio at 55 prisons for its review.

Launching the review, Juliet Lyon, the chair of the IAPDC, said: “Eligibility criteria and the convoluted process of early release are mired in complexity and risk aversion.”


One of the messages read: “Everyone’s frustrated. We’re behind these doors, we don’t know what’s going on. We’ve stopped having updates now. I used to get updates every two days or so explaining what’s going to happen. We’re just frustrated because we don’t know anything.”

Another read: “No sign of early release, no staff have any clue if it’s even true but it’s on the news.”

There were positive aspects highlighted by the review, with prisoners expressing a “high degree of respect and appreciation” for staff, while many vulnerable inmates spoke highly of the support.

But the review revealed that the severely restrictive regime in place to curb the spread of the virus, which includes a ban on visits and just 30 minutes spent out of cells each day, is having a negative impact on prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing.

One message read: “I’m sure there is a lot of prisoners suffering from severe anxiety, isolating in their cells not knowing when they’re going to be unlocked.”

Last week, the Guardian revealed there had been five suicides in six days in May, further raising concerns that the regime was taking a heavy toll on inmates’ wellbeing.

Some of the messages expressed concern about a lack of personal protective equipment among staff. One message read: “I want to know why prison officers aren’t wearing gloves, face masks and protection gear?”

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance. 

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work.

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

Based on this review, the IAPDC made 10 recommendations, including streamlining and expediting the early release scheme to create the headroom needed to take active steps to protect life.

The panel recommends overhauling the process of release on compassionate grounds, given the low number of vulnerable prisoners released to date.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “As noted in this report and by Public Health England, our strong but necessary measures are working to limit the spread of the virus and save lives. We will announce plans to ease these measures safely in due course.

“We make no apologies for putting public safety first and ensuring all prisoners are subject to thorough assessments before they leave custody.”