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COVID-19 and Prisons. Is there a way out for vulnerable prisoners?

08 April 2020

Justice scales

Article by: Deepak Vij and Katherine Higgs

As the ongoing panic about the spread of COVID-19 continues across the globe many people are working from home and self-isolating with friends and family. Perversely ‘isolation’ is playing out rather differently inside UK prisons.

The virus is spreading at an alarming rate, with 247,806 confirmed cases in the UK as of 6th April 2020. Of those there have been 4,934 confirmed deaths and 135 full recoveries. In Prisons, there are now 88 inmates and 15 staff with confirmed cases across 23 prisons, which have resulted so far in 5 confirmed deaths including three inmates and two prison staff – both of whom were based at HMP Pentonville. This number is likely to rise significantly in the coming weeks, with medical experts predicting as many as 60% of prisoners to become infected.

Initial Guidance for prisons endorsed the practice of ‘cohorting’. Cohorting is where areas of the prison are sectioned off and separated from the general prison population, attempting to stop the spread. However, there are reports of prisoners who have shown minor signs, being placed in cells alongside those with confirmed cases. Some prisoners further report being locked up for 24 hours a day with no access to showers.

Although the most recent guidance released does not mention cohorting, it seems that prisons testing positive are being placed in isolation alongside cellmates who have tested positive. This of course places those who have not yet contracted the virus at significant risk – particularly those in high risk categories.

In light of the above, in these exceptional circumstances, prisoners across the globe are making applications for bail. The law surrounding bail in the UK is set out in the Bail Act 1976, which provides the relevant factors for the court to take into account when making bail decisions. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 of the Act states that the Court shall have regard to any considerations which appear to be relevant.

If a prisoner is classed as ‘vulnerable’ in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic due to pregnancy, health conditions or age, the Government faces potentially violating an inmates ECHR rights under Articles 2, 3 and 8 and must take consideration of those rights in their decision making. This provides scope for applications to be made for those vulnerable prisoners to be released on bail.

Although this area is fast developing, it seems that in the coming weeks and months, as the situation inside UK prisons worsens, there will be more pressure put onto the government to release prisoners to relieve pressure on the system and to protect the vulnerable. The current guidance in relation to COVID-19 and prisons can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-and-prisons

If you know someone who is currently detained in a prison in the UK and would like further information in relation to the above, please get in touch now. One of our specialist solicitors will be ready to advise you.

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