Justice secretary discusses COVID-19 plans

Justice secretary Robert Buckland discussed plans for courts, prisons and probation in light of COVID-19 with the Justice Select Committee yesterday. He noted that prison overcrowding presents a “huge challenge” to isolate the prisoners most at risk and that the churn of prisoners in Category B prisons presents particular problems.

We welcome his commitment to “look expansively at what we can do to alleviate some of the pressures that exist within the system at the moment”, and his mention of prisoners on remand, pregnant prisoners and mothers with babies in particular. However time is of the essence for the government to take these vital decisions for the safety and wellbeing of prisoners and staff, as daily updates from the MoJ show concerning, but unfortunately predictable, increases in positive cases and tragically, the first two deaths.

As members are telling us, prisoners being released at the current time have even greater resettlement challenges than normal, with many services now operating via phone or online. The justice secretary confirmed they are working to “develop at pace an accommodation plan.” The CJA will continue collaborating with members and other key partners to raise practical and policy suggestions with government and decision-makers regarding prisons and resettlement, but also issues such as remand and recall, victim and family services, women’s centres and policing.

Key points from the evidence session include:

  • 13 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of speaking.
  • Around 3,500 prison staff, or 10 percent of the workforce, are off work due to being ill or self-isolating.
  • Prisoners are now spending more time in their cells to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • 900 phones have been provided to prisons across the UK to allow prisoners to stay in touch with their families. These phones do not have internet access and only enable the prisoner to call pre-authorised contacts.
  • Prisoners unable to go to work are still being paid.
  • The MoJ is working on an accommodation plan for all those scheduled for release in the coming and is ‘looking carefully’ at pregnant prisoners. It is also considering moving some remand prisoners into bail accommodation. See Robert Buckland discuss the possible release of prisoners in the video here.