human rights

‘Prisoner householding’: the latest threat from Covid-19

Scottish Prison Service issued details yesterday (28 April 2020) of the regime for those in isolation due to Covid-19.  The policy states that, on the advice of Health Protection Scotland, SPS ‘should consider a prison cell a household’ for the purposes of self-isolating in a closed prison setting.  The practical consequences of this approach raise a number of concerns regarding the safeguarding of prisoners’ rights during the Covid-19 crisis.

Prisoners symptomatic of Covid-19 ‘must be held in isolation…for a minimum of 7 days or until they are asymptomatic’ in terms of rule 41 of the prison rules (as amended for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak). 

But equally, those sharing a cell with symptomatic prisoners ‘must be held in isolation…for a minimum of 14 days’ in terms of the same rule.

This policy places exceptional restrictions on prisoners’ daily lives, albeit in the legitimate interests of public health, well beyond those endured by following the government advice to ‘stay at home’ in the community. 

‘Self-isolating’ prisoners must take all meals in their cell, have no access to recreation or outside exercise and only restricted access to communal phones.  In the case of concerns for mental wellbeing as a result of ‘prolonged isolation’, limited access to outside exercise may be provided subject to risk assessment.  But what does prolonged isolation mean?  The usual maximum period of 72 hours isolation (under rule 41) is already prolonged to 14 days before prison governors require to seek authority for any extension. 

These measures, of themselves, present a serious threat to the residual liberty and humane treatment of segregated prisoners.  But above all, if a prison cell is to be classified as a ‘household’, then it will be especially important to tackle the enduring problem of prison overcrowding. 

As the Scottish Human Rights Commission has highlighted, in its letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, ‘key concerns relate to reducing the detained populations to mitigate the inherent risk of maintaining people in close confinement and spreading the virus’.  We share the concerns of the SHRC that ‘extended solitary confinement in spaces designed for one but holding two will be detrimental to both physical and mental health’.

Prisoners in shared cells face a greater risk of being held in isolation (aside from the increased risk of infection) than if they occupied single cells alone.  A policy of ‘prisoner householding’ therefore risks criticism as unreasonably and unlawfully placing prisoners at risk. 

How could things be done differently?  The policy itself provides some answers.  Prisoners who are ‘shielding’ as clinically extremely vulnerable will be accommodated in single cells, and ‘offered an opportunity to take outside exercise 3 times a week’.  Others with underlying health conditions who ‘may wish to restrict contact with others’ should be accommodated in single cells ‘where possible’ and should be ‘offered outside exercise on a daily basis’.  In all such cases, the policy anticipates that social distancing will be adhered to at all times.  These conditions should be available to all prisoners. 

All possible steps must be taken, therefore, to safely reduce the prison population, so that the significant threats posed by ‘prisoner householding’ in shared cells are avoided. 

The first executive ‘early releases’ of prisoners in Scotland are due to take place tomorrow (30 April).  Updated weekly prison population figures, taking account of those releases, are due to be published on Friday (1 May).  We have already seen the potential for legal action if executive powers of release are not utilised to the fullest extent.  Howard League Scotland will continue to monitor the data closely.

Press Release: HLS Statement on Equality and Human Rights Committee

Press Release: HLS welcomes the recommendation from the Equality and Human Rights Committee that Scotland's ban on prisoner voting should be removed in its entirety

Howard League Scotland welcomes today’s report from the Equality and Human Rights Committee that calls for all people in prison to be given the right to vote. The Committee state that given the importance of rehabilitation, human rights, and democracy, 'Scotland should aim for a higher standard than recently established at UK level and should therefore legislate to remove the ban on prisoner voting in its entirety’

Howard League Scotland has consistently campaigned against the blanket ban on prisoner voting and we are delighted to see cross party support for change. We hope the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament will give this report the positive and thoughtful consideration it deserves.

Extending the vote to prisoners is not simply about criminal justice, penal reform or rehabilitation. This is about human rights, creating a universal franchise for all adults in Scotland, and ensuring democratic rights for all citizens. The existence of a universal franchise is an important measure of the strength of our democracy and social equality. Using that measure, Scotland’s democracy currently falls short. Of the 47 Council of Europe nations, Scotland is an outlier; having restrictions on prisoner voting we are in line only with the rest of the UK, Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia. 

Since the devolution of electoral matters to Holyrood in the Scotland Act 2016, however, Scotland has gained the opportunity to be a leader in democratic and penal reform by becoming the first polity in the United Kingdom to extend the franchise to convicted prisoners, who are still being denied the vote across the UK, despite the European Court ruling that this is unlawful. We strongly encourage the Government and Parliament to embrace today’s report. By extending the vote to all prisoners, the Scottish Parliament can send a clear signal about its commitment to justice and fairness, and Scotland will make a bold statement on the international stage about the inclusive and democratic character of our society. 

 

ENDS

For further details contact: Louise@HowardLeague.Scot

About Howard League Scotland (HLS): Founded in 1979, HLS campaigns for penal reform in Scotland and promotes just responses to the causes and consequences of crime. HLS accepts no funding from central or local government so that we can campaign freely on key issues. HLS is a highly respected organisation and has been influential in changing government policy in Scotland. 

 

 

 

 

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