Prison overcrowding and Covid-19 have combined to create a malignant malaise the Government must act boldly to cure, argues Oliver Dunn  

The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that the UK's prisons house five thousand prisoners beyond their capacity. In these overcrowded conditions violence, self-harm and drug abuse are prevalent, making it unsafe to live and work in prisons. Compounded by the threat of Covid-19, this situation is increasingly intolerable. In order to avoid the virus ravaging the prison population, as it has in other countries in the developed world, British governors have implemented severe restrictions throughout their prisons: inmates' time in the open air and even in showers has been greatly limited, visitation ended and contact between prisoners strictly curtailed.

Though relatively successful in stopping the spread of the virus ­- only 450 infections have been reported – these measures are clearly unsustainable. The Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke stated that he regards prisoners to be under "conditions that meet widely agreed definitions of solitary confinement" which he believe pose "a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently".

This contemporary crisis represents an acute manifestation of the chronic problem of prison overcrowding. Successive governments have kicked the can down the road and failed to implement any substantial reforms to the UK's criminal justice system that would alleviate the pressure placed on prisons. The emergence of Covid-19 and the measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus necessitate reform. We have seen severe unrest in Australian prisons, sparked by the severity of anti-Covid-19 measures, and deadly outbreaks of the virus in the Californian penal system.

If we are to avoid similar occurrences in the UK's prisons drastic and decisive action is required.

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Consequently, I propose that non-violent drug offenders should no longer face custodial sentences and instead face justice through community-based rehabilitative justice programs. This would also necessitate the release on remand of some 15% of the current prison population, approximately 12000 people, immediately reducing the prison population whilst simultaneously making our justice system fairer.

In addition to the evident effect of relieving prison overcrowding, this shift in policy would also take out of prison a section of society that simply has no place there. They are guilty of a crime, but one with no victim; if they must face justice it should be within a restorative framework in which the wellbeing of the wider community, and the offender themselves, are centred. The excessive focus on punishment within traditional prisons fails to account for the factors present in drug related crime. Those who fall foul of the law for drug offences are very often vulnerable young people, groomed and exploited by hardened criminals who deliberately seek out children in care and on the margins of our society. This was shown clearly to be the case by the Home Office's 2018 report into the 'county lines' drug running phenomenon.

Whilst it is certainly true that prison can be an effective tool to keep the public safe from violent offenders, drug offenders are not guilty of violence and there is significant evidence to suggest custodial sentences increase re-offending rates. We can be in no doubt that the current overcrowded prison system is failing prisoners; drug use has doubled in the last five years amongst inmates and mental illness is over three times as prevalent in prisons as it is in the general population. The severe measures implemented to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are likely to have only made the situation worse, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons' comments can attest. If drug offenders are not dangerous to the public and prison does little to rehabilitate – but a great deal to damage inmates – why continue with a broken system?

A shift towards community justice programmes therefore would benefit not only the offenders, but the wider public. Because instead of exposing drug offenders to an increased risk of drug dependency and mental illness through time spent in unsafe prisons, offenders would become active participants in their own rehabilitation, as the focus would be not on punishment but on addressing the underlying causes of their offending.

As we face the possibility of a rise in infections during the winter, our prisons have been left as overcrowded as when the pandemic first took hold and the current range of severe measures employed to combat Covid-19 are unsustainable. The status quo simply cannot hold; we must release drug offenders back into their communities not only for the health and wellbeing of prisoners and prison staff, but because their imprisonment does more harm than good.

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