Ashish writes for The Independent Online

Ashish Prashar
Thursday 21st May 2020
Covid-19 has exposed our institutional trigger finger when it comes to locking people up." data-share-imageurl="">

Ashish Prashar writes an article published in The Independent Online, entitled: Thousands of prisoners may be exposed to coronavirus – we need to release them all. 4,000 people were cleared for early release but officials have been abysmally slow to act. Below is the article in full.


Covid-19 has exposed our institutional trigger finger when it comes to locking people up. Scotland, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, and yet there is no evidence of a link between the prison population and crime levels.

The rhetoric around "getting tough on crime" has led to an unmanageable and damaging justice system, and created overcrowding conditions so serious that prisons have become a petri dish for Covid-19. The number of prisoners with suspected Covid-19 is five times the official figures of confirmed cases, and steps taken to reduce infection are often cruel: in one young offender institution, children are spending just 40 minutes per day outside of their cells.

While some action has been taken to limit the risk of Covid-19 in prisons (4,000 people were cleared for early release), officials have been abysmally slow to act, a problem when dealing with a pandemic. Of those under the early release scheme, just 55 have been released so far.

Looking at our track record, it's clear why things have been so stagnant.

In 2018, 59,000 people were sent to prison. Almost 70 per cent of those sentences were for non-violent offences. Almost half were sentenced to serve six months or less. Most people currently imprisoned do not pose a risk to society, but need community support and a way out of crime. Incarceration makes that path to restoration almost impossible.

In the wake of Covid-19 and tightening government budgets, there is an opportunity for significant nationwide expansion of alternatives to incarceration and detention, and impactful reform of the justice system.

Research has shown that community sentences are more effective for re-offenders, and particularly for those with mental health issues, but their use has more than halved in a decade. Instead, we are increasingly imprisoning people. This attitude of retribution leads to overcrowded and understaffed prisons where abuse, violence and riots are common. The cycle of harm continues, and violence spreads.

Self-harm in English and Welsh prisons rose by 14 per cent last year due to terrible conditions of constant confinement, and prison employees at multiple prisons are increasingly using violence and fear as tactics against even peaceful and compliant incarcerated people.

Our system today is built on a punitive theory of justice, that if we punish people – isolate them from community, family and friends, they won’t re-offend, and any survivors will be satisfied. But we know that incarceration just does further damage to those incarcerated and to their community. We also know that survivors are often left unsatisfied, unable to get the healing and closure they deserve.

Restorative justice is a different approach, focusing on the relationship between the offender and the victim and centres the needs of survivors in ways that the traditional court system does not. Because of Covid-19, some individuals and groups are beginning to experiment with building relationships in the community, an important pillar of restorative justice theory.

For example, London police officers are engaging with violent re-offenders, working with them to prevent future offences. This program mirrors the approach of a Chicago, Illinois programme, where ex-gang members, police officers and local young people are brought together to build better relationships, enabling positive alternatives through intensive mentoring.

In a more victim-focused approach, Why me? Victims for Restorative Justice looks at helping victims access restorative justice. This gives them the opportunity to ask questions they want answered directly, to explain the impact of the crime on their lives and be involved in deciding how to move forward – a process that often works well for both parties.

It is this kind of approach – working with, not against communities, and focusing on prevention, not incarceration – that reduces crime and cultivates healthy communities.

We almost guarantee re-offending by placing people back into the hostile environment they came from. When people commit petty crimes, our first thought should be to find a way to make their lives safer and more secure: not to lock them up as a first resort.

Many headlines highlight the failure of the probation service to prevent serious re-offending, but few around the nature of those re-offences, and that minor, technical probation offences can lead to another prison sentence for low-risk offenders.

This over-enthusiasm to send formerly incarcerated people back to prison on technical faults means that instead of providing a safe space for rehabilitation and to make better choices, people are sent into a system that expects them to fail. To truly help ex-prisoners, community programmes that provide a support network for people are essential. This compassionate approach should be prioritised over harsh punitive measures for small technical offences that feel more like entrapment than a concern for public safety.

We have tried punishment. We’ve been “tough on crime” and the result is a system that considers expensive prison sentences for low-level offences a better alternative to thoughtful policies, like funding community and social good programmes and increasing the numbers of community police officers.

Covid-19 presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to look afresh at justice and what constitutes acceptable behaviour towards incarcerated people. Our leaders must consider what outcome we actually want as a society: whether that’s to repeatedly punish without providing alternatives or lessons, or to reduce crime and build a healthier family, community and country.

Ashish Prashar is global director of communications at Publicis Sapient and board member of New York-based Exodus Transitional Community; Getting Out and Staying Out and Leap Confronting Conflict in the UK



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