On Monday morning, a protest took place on the doorstep of the home of the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland in Wroughton, Borough of Swindon. The protesters demanded the immediate release of all incarcerated people from the unsafe conditions in which they are being held in prisons, detention centres and psychiatric hospitals, in order to prevent mass death from COVID-19.
The protesters released the following statement:
The situation inside prisons across England and Wales continues to be dire. People are kept locked in their cells for up to twenty-three and a half hours a day; there are insufficient hygiene products available to prevent the possible spread of infection, and prison officers are failing to follow protocols to stop the spread of the virus.
The government has catastrophically failed to respond. To date, a mere 55 people have been released and the scheme for early release was paused, despite Public Health England stating at least 10 000 – 15 000 people would need to be released during the Covid-19 crisis. At least 16 people in prison have been killed by the virus according to official statistics, but due to a systemic lack of testing for people in prison the real number of deaths is likely much higher. Moreover, many others have taken their own lives because of the inhumane current conditions. This situation will only get worse if no action is taken.
Prisons disproportionately incarcerate people who have been victims of state violence and neglect; 24% of adults in prison grew up in the care system and 29% are survivors of childhood abuse. People of colour are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system – for example, over half of the boys held in Young Offenders Institutes are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, despite this demographic only comprising 14 per cent of the overall population. The government’s inaction amounts to genocide against the most marginalised.
Conditions inside prisons are unbearable and made even worse due to COVIS-19. Blue Bag Life has shared this quotation from an incarcerated person on their twitter: “People are walking around with masks made from bedsheets they’ve wrapped around their face. It’s mental. I’m asking people for blue gloves, but it’s like they’re gold dust. Even when I’m saying I wanna clean my cell, there’s no bleach. There’s are no mop-heads. There’s nothing.”
Families of those incarcerated are also being affected by the lack of government response to the crisis of Covid-19 in English and Welsh prisons. As this testimony from a mother supporting her son in prison shows, as shared by Our Empty Chair on twitter: “since the outbreak of Corona Virus he’s been locked up 23 hours a day. At first he had to decide between taking a shower and ringing his family as he didn’t have time to do both”.
Groups across the U.K. have been demanding justice for incarcerated people since the outbreak of the pandemic, yet the government response has been silence. Actions have included the groups Women in Prison and Inquest publishing an open letter that has since been signed by hundreds of groups and individuals; Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) have called numerous online actions and demands from a pandemic have called banner drops. Many other countries across the world have released tens of thousands of people from prisons, but the Ministry of Justice has refused to do so.
Gary Solomons, one of the protestors who took part, explains: “The inaction of the government means people I love inside prison, as well as thousands others, have effectively been sentenced to death. We aren’t meant to have the death penalty in this country, but that is what leaving people inside during this pandemic amounts to. The government must be held to account.