Open Letter to HM Government on COVID-19 and the Criminal Justice System

As a matter of urgency, the government must take action to protect vulnerable prisoners from the health and social impacts of the COVID-19 virus.


Prisons are the remaining spaces within British society denied the protection of infection control standards. Prisoners are forced into a possible site of contagion with no choice over the prison facility, or cell-mates with whom they will be detained. Imprisonment should not involve forced subjection to a deadly infection. Overcrowded prisons are simply incapable of quarantining people. Policies need to be directed to releasing prisoners, and laws governing policing, prosecution and judicial discretion need to be changed to prevent further imprisonment.   

The Secretary of State has the discretion to release almost all determinate sentenced prisoners who can be safely released. The elderly, the sick and the vulnerable could be offered release under the discretion afforded to the Secretary of State for Justice  under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which provides for the release of prisoners under exceptional circumstances. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the Coronavirus pandemic as “the worst public health crisis in a generation” with a high death rate for vulnerable and elderly populations, and this may well constitute exceptional circumstances. Yet the prisons minister, Lucy Frazer, has merely stated: “We are not planning to release prisoners in response to the COVID-19 outbreak”.

Reducing visits risks prison order. The likelihood of reduced or cancelled visits is both concerning and dangerous. Family visits are precious, and both the direct and indirect impact of limiting these can be significant. In Italy, when significant restrictions were placed on visits as part of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, this contributed to riots within the prisons, which resulted in the death of 12 people (The Independent, 13 March 2020). The risk of instability inside the prison is yet another concern for those in prison and their families.

We the undersigned are seeking your immediate action to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in the English criminal justice system, especially women’s prisons and youth detention centres. A report (2017) by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found that the average age of male prisoners who had died from natural causes was 56, while for female inmates the average had fallen to 47. In the UK, the average age of death for men is currently 86.9 years,  and 89.2 years for women. A prison sentence is supposed to mean a period of isolation away from the community, it is not supposed to prescribe a certain death sentence for the women entering the UK prison system who are already vulnerable and fragile, whose immunity is already weakened. 

Key Facts

  • The number of women in prison in England and Wales was 3,831 on 26 July 2019.
  • Women make up around 5% of the overall prison population in the UK.
  • There were a total of 7,745 receptions into women’s prisons in 2018.
  • Women accounted for 10% of all prison receptions in 2018.
  • Women serve prison sentences for minor offences; 82% of women’s prison sentences in 2018 were for non-violent offences
  • Theft offences accounted for nearly half (46%) of all immediate custodial sentences given to women in 2018.
  • Most women entering prison serve short sentences; 77% of prison sentences given to women in 2018 were for 12 months or less.
  • Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by a significant increase in the severity of sentences. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of women sentenced for theft from a shop decreased by 4% whilst the number sentenced to custody increased by 17%.
  • The number of community sentences for women has fallen by nearly half in the last decade.
  • In 2017 TV licence evasion accounted for 30% of all prosecutions for women, but only 4% for men. 72% of the 136,550 defendants prosecuted for TV license evasion in that year were women.

Women on remand

  •  In 2017, 43% of women entering prison did so on remand. 
  • 14.3% of women in prison, compared to 11.1% of men, are held on remand
  •  Almost 9 in 10 women on remand are low to medium risk of serious harm.
  • In 2017, 62% of women remanded into prison by the magistrates’ court and 39% remanded by the crown courts did not go on to receive an immediate custodial sentence
  • 17% of self-harm incidents by women in prison in 2017 were committed by those held on remand.

The Case for Women

“Women who end up in prison are among the most powerless and disadvantaged in our society, largely due to traumatic life experiences such as sexual and physical abuse, mental and physical ill health, racism and discrimination, underpinned by poverty and inequality. Since the publication of the Corston report in 2007, a total of 104 women have died in prison. Many of these preventable deaths raise serious concerns about the impact of imprisonment on both physical and mental ill health. They raise questions about human rights violations – not only the failure to provide a safe and dignified environment, but also the failure to act to prevent future deaths.” Debra Coles – Inquest

A report by Prof Richard Coker, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for Duncan Lewis Solicitors  warns of the substantial risk of the virus spreading at a particularly fast rate in locked establishments such as prisons and detention centres, in a process he refers to as “cluster amplification”.

“The faecal-oral route of transmission is potentially important, though less well demonstrated compared to the respiratory route of transmission. This route of transmission has implications in areas with poor sanitation.iii The transmission of SARS-CoV-2 as a fomite, that is, the spread of a virus through an object – door handle, doorbell, respirators, also plays a role in spreading the virus. As with the faecal-oral route, poor sanitation, again, is thus likely to play a part in transmission.iv The virus can remain viable on surfaces for days in the absence of appropriate cleaning

We know that COVID-19 spreads quickly in closed spaces and prisons are commonly epicentres for infectious diseases. This is particularly a concern where there is overcrowding, with most English  prisons operating at over 100% of their design capacity. The Prison Reform Trust calculates that around 20,000 prisoners – almost a quarter of the total – are held in overcrowded conditions. Women are being held in  twos and threes in single cells at HMP Eastwood Park, HMP Downview, HMP Send, HMP New Hall, HMP Bronzefield, as of today, 20 March 2020. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified overcrowding as a structural problem that contributes to the spread of infections in prisons. Some groups are particularly adversely affected by prison overcrowding. For example, the needs of women and children in detention – already often given little attention – tend to be even more neglected in overcrowded and overstretched prison systems. Overcrowding exacerbates the risk of suicide in women’s prisons. BAME women suffer from ‘double disadvantage:’

The distress of black women is too often disbelieved and viewed as a discipline and control problem, rather than requiring care and support. The role of race in the dehumanising treatment these women received cannot be ignored.  – Debra Coles – Inquest

Overcrowding has a corrosive effect. It is, in the words of Lord Woolf, the author of a report on the Strangeways prison riot that left two dead and almost 200 injured, “a cancer eating at the ability of the prison service” to deliver effective education, tackle offending behaviour and prepare prisoners for life on the outside. 

In addition, many people who are incarcerated also have chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and asthma, which makes them vulnerable to more severe forms of COVID-19. Prisons healthcare is killing women whose needs are often ignored and who cannot access the most basic healthcare in prisons. Research on other diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis, shows rates of infection among incarcerated populations are up to 100 times higher than outside of prisons:

Women in jail had a higher burden of chronic medical disorders, psychiatric disorders, and drug dependence than men, including conditions found more commonly in men in the general population. Thus, there is a need for targeted attention to the chronic medical, psychiatric, and drug-treatment needs of women at risk for incarceration, both in jail and after release.” 

The first cases of COVID-19 have been reported at HMP Strangeways and it appears prison officers are also affected, with over 75 in self isolation or ill with symptoms at HMP Berwyn. 

COVID-19 has broken out in our prisons and youth detention centres. This will then have a substantial flow-on effect to the community, including community health services. People are continually churning in and out of prisons and then being released to their communities. Significantly, In 2017, 62% of women remanded into prison by the magistrates’ court and 39% remanded by the crown courts did not go on to receive an immediate custodial sentence. 

Failing to deal with COVID-19 in the criminal justice system will also have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations over-represented in prisons, namely black and Asian women whose health needs are unmet in prison and who are disproportionately represented; people from low socio-economic backgrounds; people experiencing homelessness; and people with disabilities.

Prisons experience a daily influx of prison staff, health care workers, lawyers, educators, non-governmental support workers and visitors — all of whom can carry viral conditions at the prison back to their homes and communities and return the next day carrying them from home. In the current circumstances, it is unviable to preclude incarcerated people becoming infected with COVID-19 and spreading the virus beyond prison walls. 

Healthcare in prisons is already overstretched, which creates a risk that people living and working in prisons will not be monitored regularly enough. Symptoms need to be addressed quickly. Isolating people suspected of having the virus will also be a major challenge.  The government’s stated intention to cluster people infected, or suspected of being infected is not a humane way to deal with people in our criminal justice system in a pandemic. This approach will potentially cause further problems within the isolated population and eventually, in the community when they are released. 

We are hearing reports of prisoners not being able to regularly wash their hands, which may promote the spread of disease. Hand sanitiser, which contains alcohol, is  considered contraband. Prisoners share bathrooms, laundry and areas where food is consumed. Prison toilets do not have lids. Many cells are doubled-up and prisoners share rooms and dorms in low security prisons. Air circulation can be poor, as many windows do not open. Soap may only be available at a cost and many prisoners have no prison employment and no money for this. 

To prevent prisons becoming COVID-19 hotspots, the only logical response is decarceration. This emergency measure is necessary to protect the health and well-being of prisoners and the wider community. As the pandemic has widened, international measures have included Iran’s release of 85,000 prisoners, Ireland’s proposal to release prisoners with less than 12 months to serve and the proposed release of high-risk inmates from Rikers Island and elsewhere in the United States and United Kingdom to a very small degree, a proposed 600 of a prison population of over 88 000.

 The average direct cost per prison place in 2018 – 2019 was £26,274 but taking into account all resource expenditure the overall cost per place was £40,843.

The Reform think-tank estimates there are 2,305 “low risk” prisoners currently serving sentences for crimes such as shop-lifting and should be released into the community. Clearly, by releasing a large proportion of these inmates, the strain will be eased on both overcrowding in British prisons and on the prison workforce during the outbreak of the virus. Reform adds that in the short-term aid the fight against coronavirus and significantly reduce the cost of holding offenders in prisons – with a price tag of £3,601 a month.  The organisation said the cost of monitoring an offender with Home Detention Curfew tag is around £166 a month, while a full community sentence, including unpaid work and probation meetings, would cost around £368 a month.

We are therefore calling on HM Government to, as a matter of urgency: 

• Ensure all prisoners are informed on the status of COVID-19 and their rights; 

• Ensure compliance with international laws and the standards for health treatment of prisoners, including the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Rule 24) and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (Rule 9); 

• Adopt, to the extent possible, best-practice sanitation (including alcohol-based sanitisers if necessary) and social distancing techniques to promote prisoner and staff safety; 

• Support not-for-profit and government agencies to work with prisoners and their families to find them safe accommodation when they are released as a result of this call for decarceration; 

• Minimise the impact of restrictions on prisoners (e.g., frequent opportunities to communicate with family online, in the absence of face-to-face visits; increased access to and availability of  subsidised phone calls; judicious approach to the use of solitary confinement); 

• Minimise the use of resources on the detection and prosecution of non-violent offences that do not pose a significant risk to the community; 

• Support bail and non-custodial penalties for all defendants who do not present a very high risk that cannot be managed in the community (e.g., through electronic monitoring), noting that stringent restrictions on daily movement are likely in any event; 

• Legislate to require bail and sentencing courts to consider the risk that a current pandemic will present to the prisoner and their community upon release, with a view to promoting community-based options; 

• Facilitate remote supervision of bail and community supervision; 

• Provide additional support to victims, noting the likely increased risk of family violence for those in home quarantine conditions; 

• Resource community legal centres, legal aid,  legal services and prosecution agencies to facilitate remote interaction; 

• Provide for the early release of prisoners, including: 

  • those at high risk of harm from COVID-19, with anxious scrutiny given to all marginalised groups, including intersecting groups, at risk of the disease worsening their vulnerability to poor health;
  • women, children and young people;
  • those detained for summary offences (e.g., unlawful driving; public disorder; fine default); property crimes; non-violent drug offences; common assault; and breach of justice procedures; and
  • those who are likely to be released in the next six months. 

For more information please email:

To add your name to the list of signatures, please leave a comment below this article.

NamePositionComment (optional) 
Sara Watson Solicitor  RTW, London 
Clare SimmsEditor The View Magazine
Farah DamjiWriter, campaigner
Tracey McMahonCampaigner
Nicola HardingAcademic, University of Lancaster
John FordReformed criminal
Avril Brady Campaigner  
Dan Fisher Editor-in-Chief, Uncommon Ground 
Holly BrightProperty Entrepreneur 
Ffion BartleyTraining and Development Manager
Dr Tony Roberts Fostering Change Ltd
Michelle SinglehurstCampaigner 
Katie Barker Educator
Karen Beadle Campaigner / Artist  /Tutor /Journo Always working with a social conscience. 
Donovan CleckleyWriterDecarceration seems most sensible as a practical response to the present situation, especially regarding female prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are poor and Black or brown, incarcerated merely for misdemeanors like petty theft and non-violent offenses.
Sam YazigiSolicitor
Sharni Quinnreformed criminal
Connor SharrattWindow Fabricator
Marcel SharrattFactory Operative
Jo Quinnmother of reformed prisoner
Christie Parker carer
Brady Parkerretail
Kushal SoodSolicitorAbolition has long been ignored and overlooked by policymakers and even in some academic disciplines. The ideas associated with it, from global sources, must be placed front and centre to dispel the many myths the criminal justice system has been able to operate under throughout its history. This will involve ideological u-turns, but will save lives. 
Laura Bedford stay at home parent
Philip Martin Recruitment agent for ex-offenders and prison rehabilitation consultant.There are tens of thousands of people in prison who are low risk, approaching the end of their sentence or legally innocent, on remand. Many have respiratory problems or are immunocompromised. 800 deaths are predicted which is bad enough but before death, many thousands will cause a huge burden to the NHS. We need to release thousands urgently as other countries have.
Penelope GrahamJustice Campaigner
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Natalie)Green Party peer
Dr Kate Herrity
Dr, Criminology

John MooreHumanNo one should be locked up. Prisons and other forms of detention are inherently dangerous and this virus increases the risk. Local prisons are particularly dangerous and emptying them should be the priority. We need to rethink so much after this. I hope an abolitionist approach will emerge. Social Solidarity & Security not Cages!
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (Jenny) Green Party Peer
Neil BakiBarrister 
Patricia Murphy BABCP accredited CBT Therapist
Chris Cattermole Prison Reformer, Author
Prof. David Gordon Scott Open University
Devon J Hallgate Writer
Dr Kathryn Chadwick MMU
Victoria Canning University of Bristol
Fergus McNeill Professor of Criminology & Social Work, University of Glasgow
Dr Jason Warr Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, De Montfort University
Dr Shona Minson British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford
Lisa Armstrong Children’s rights advocate, PIA Scotland, LLM Criminal Justice student & tutor University of Strathclyde
Lucy Baldwin Senior Lecturer DMU
Dr Laura Abbott Senior Lecturer in Midwifery, University of Hertfordshire
Baroness Hussein-Ece (Meral)  Lib Dem  Peer

Annalisa ToccaraCampaigner, Founder of Our Mel 
Adam PughAnti-Racism Campaigner
Dr Aylwyn Walsh Associate Professor University of Leeds
Professor Kate ChedgzoyFaculty Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Newcastle University
Dr Helena EnrightSenior Lecturer Drama, Bath Spa University, Documentary playwright
Dr. Laura Loyola-HernandezResearch Fellow, University of Leeds
Dr Alex MasonArts & Humanities Knowledge Exchange Project Manager, University of Sheffield 
Brendan RossProject Manager
Dr Hannah QuirkReader in Criminal Law, King’s College London
Dr Craig FletcherProceeds of Crime Researcher/Campaigner
Sherene MeirLecturer & formerly prison rehabilitation worker 
Julia ToppinTeacher and Lecturer
Dr Natalie BoothSenior Lecturer in Criminology, Bath Spa University
Dr Yvonne Battle-FeltonWriter, Lecturer, Mom
Ross Little Senior lecturer, De Montfort University
Professor David WhyteAcademic and UCU Branch Vice President, University of Liverpool
Becky ClarkeResearcher/Academic, Manchester
Dr Abigail Stark Lecturer, Preston

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Article Discussion

  • I strongly agree with this article.

  • Posted by Dr Kate Herrity

    23 March, 2020 at 3:50 pm

    I'd like to sign please

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