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Ashish Prashar writes for INews Online

Ashish Prashar
Tuesday 5th May 2020
I'm scared for prisoners being kept in a disease trap - the Ministry of Justice needs to use the pandemic as a reason to take stock.

As coronavirus

Ashish Prashar, Leap Confronting Conflict Trustee, writes for INEWS Online. The title of the article is 'Coronvirus is exposing the health crisis within UK prisons'. Read article in full below.

I'm scared for prisoners being kept in a disease trap - the Ministry of Justice needs to use the pandemic as a reason to take stock.

As coronavirus spread through the country, the UK's overcrowded prisons were set to become hotspots for infection. In response, the Government promised the imminent release of up to 4000 low-risk inmates who were within two months of their release date. This was in early April. As of the end of April, only 33 had actually been released from a prison population of 81,500.

Five members of prison staff and 15 prisoners have contracted Covid-19 and died, while 321 further prisoners have been confirmed to have coronavirus alongside 293 staff. Considering the rate of testing in the UK, this is likely to be a vast underestimation. Cases are not clustering in one prison either, but are widespread throughout the UK prison population.

I’m scared for the prisoners being kept in a disease trap. Prisons have poor healthcare offerings at the best of times, and have trouble maintaining control of their populations under normal circumstances thanks to crowding and understaffing. Imminent release of a far greater number of prisoners is crucial to prevent the virus spreading further. How they will pull off effective social distancing in the current circumstances is beyond me - I was incarcerated as a teenager and I know it would have been impossible in the conditions I experienced.

When I was 17, I was sentenced to a year in prison after a youthful ‘misadventure’ - to the tune of £20,000 of goods stolen from a luxury London department store. During my sentence, myself and fellow boys in the prison were antagonised by officers as much as by our fellow inmates. They would use racial slurs against those of us unlucky enough to be anything other than white, and use hard physical punishments like handcuffs.

The failings of the system were deep and entrenched - and caused by a lack of interest in reforming offenders. Prison is not a place for rehabilitation, it’s a place where people who often have faced huge disadvantages throughout their life are kept, out of sight and out of mind for the general population. If prison does not care about reform - its apparent purpose - it certainly does not seem to care about the health of its inhabitants. Prisoners are treated as sub-human, and this reluctance to protect them from Covid-19 is reflective of that.

The current crisis is the canary in the coalmine for health and prisons. We must work to find a better solution to non-violent or petty crime than simply locking all the perpetrators into the same building and hoping that they come out with a new ability to find their way in the world without resorting to crime to support themselves.

This means creating opportunities for those who might be or who have been tempted by criminal activity. We must provide offenders with the tools they need to find meaningful employment; help them gain necessary qualifications and work alongside them as they remove themselves from often very difficult circumstances that have helped push them to crime. More importantly, we need to create community spaces, initiatives and activities that mean there are fewer offenders in the first place.

The Ministry of Justice needs to use the current pandemic as a reason to take stock - the way many of us have when thinking about how we treat our neighbours, and each other. A health crisis unfolding in jails, pushing an already volatile environment and a stretched care system, should be enough to prompt a reconsideration over whether we look to enact revenge upon individuals, or work with them to reform outside the walls of a prison.

Without exception, not a single leader in the UK right now, with the power to take transformative action to save lives in jails, prisons and detention centres, has shown they have the courage, moral clarity or decisiveness to do what is necessary to save lives. Now is the time for them to step up.

I approached the Ministry of Justice for a response. A prison service spokesperson said: “The number of young offenders in custody has fallen by over 80 per cent over the last 20 years. We have robust and flexible plans in place to keep prisoners and staff safe, based on the latest public health advice and there are positive early signs that these are proving effective.”

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Ashish Prashar is a former press secretary to Boris Johnson and Board Member of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out and Leap Confronting Conflict

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