PAS CORONAVIRUS / COVID-19 RESPONSE
Due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, on 12 March 2020, PAS closed its office to all but a skeleton Advice Line staff in order to keep that service safely going for as long as we possibly could.
Since then, we have reviewed which services we are able to continue to provide and implemented the adjustments we have had to make to normalise remote working and isolation.
Telephone Advice Line – Open As Usual
Despite the difficult circumstances in which we are now having to operate, our Advice Line remains open Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10am-12.30pm and 2-4:30pm, and Tuesday 4.30-7pm. As we are running the service remotely, there may be some delays or difficulties getting through; however we are doing our best to answer all calls.
Due to Government restrictions on entering prisons, our outreach programme is suspended. We will resume Outreach Clinics inside prisons as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. In the meantime, we have specifically adapted our Advice Line in order to take more calls to compensate for the current lack of face to face contact.
Letters Clinic/Legal Letters
In terms of PAS’ Letters Clinic, we are keenly aware that prisoners remain one of the few communities of people who still send letters and we are trying to keep that line of communication open. With our office now closed, alternative arrangements have been made to secure ongoing receipt and dispatch of physical mail. Our incoming mail is being redirected to a member of staff who has access to a printer/scanner, who can then send the documents electronically to the Caseworker or member of staff addressed. All of our Caseworkers are working on current cases at home and continue to send letters and legal documents to prisoners and other recipients via the Royal Mail as usual, albeit via local post offices, or post-boxes. Mail may take longer than usual to arrive in the present circumstances.
PAS has also subscribed to the ‘email a prisoner’ scheme, whereby messages and documents are sent to a general prison e-mail. These are then printed out by Prison Officers and handed to the prisoner in question. Although not confidential, this is another way to reach out to the prisoner community during this extraordinary time.
Latest HM Prison and Probation Service Covid-19 Statistics Show Increase in Infections
HM Prison and Probation Service has released new COVID-19 statistics, showing an increase in infections in prisons up to 30 September 2020.
620 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 in September, up from 550 in August.
A total of 316 prison service users have been released early from custody under COVID-19 temporary release schemes in England and Wales. Between March and September, 54 prisoners were released on compassionate grounds, while 262 were granted End of Custody Temporary Release. Both schemes have been championed by PAS.
There have been no deaths due to COVID-19 since May, when 10 deaths were recorded. The official number of deaths in prison since March is 45.
Pause to End of Custody Temporary Release (ECTR)
On 19th August 2020 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service announced that the ECTR scheme was being paused ‘with releases being made until Thursday 27 August 2020’. PAS sought clarity from the MoJ on what this means in practice for prisoners eligible for release with either outstanding applications or those still waiting to make one.
The MoJ confirmed that all eligible applications already received were progressed and final cases submitted to the Minister for sight on Friday 21st August. No new applications will be considered and the final release under ECTR will take place on Thursday 27th August 2020. If an individual has not been informed of an outcome, and they are not due to be released under ECTR between now and 27th August, then their application is no longer being considered.
PAS has made enquiries on behalf of prisoners to ascertain the status of their application. However, the lack of public guidance and clarity surrounding the scheme has made it extremely difficult to advise prisoners at this distressing time.
PAS Posts New Case Study Highlighting Prisoners’ Rights During Lockdown
Several prisoners in one of the largest prisons contacted our Advice Line some weeks into the lockdown complaining of the internal policy relating to time out of their cells and access to video visits. Prisons have been running restricted regimes in response to the covid-19 pandemic, but this prison had a written behaviour management policy during the pandemic, whereby access to time out of their cells – 30 minutes each day – and access to video visits would be restricted where prisoners were deemed to breach this policy.
There have been some legislative changes to prisoners’ regimes, however, time out of cells, which is a statutory minimum, is unaffected.
PAS wrote to the prison in question to remind them that time out of their cells was a statutory right to which prisoners are entitled and which could not be restricted except in very limited circumstances. We also made the case that video visits, a new initiative in prisons, were intended to ameliorate the stinging loss of face to face visits during the lockdown and ought to be viewed as having similar status to mandatory rights. The prison governor responded to our letter stating that they had reviewed the behaviour policy and removed the loss of time out of cell and access to video visits as sanctions.
PAS Publishes New HMPPS Notices to Prisoners and Families
Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons, sent updates to families and prisoners on the Covid-19 situation in prison on 22 June 2020.
You can download these notices below:
End of Custody Temporary Release
PAS receives numerous calls from prisoners struggling to get information on the progress of End of Custody Temporary Release (ECTR) applications. PAS contacted the ECTR team to clarify the process. The ECTR team told us that it sends regular lists of potentially eligible prisoners to prisons. The prisons then identify who is eligible and return the paperwork to the ECTR team. The ECTR team says it then processes all the necessary checks and reaches a decision on release, which can take from 12 days to over 20 days depending on the case.
If a prisoner wants an update on their application they should ask their Offender Management Unit (OMU) to contact the COVID19 OMU support hub for information. PAS can also contact the hub on a prisoner’s behalf. If a prisoner believes they should have been identified as eligible for ECTR, they can contact PAS for advice.
Some useful materials on ECTR can also be found on this link from the charity Appeal.
ECTR Case Study
A low risk, Category D (minimal security) adult male prisoner, serving four and a half years for an offence of Fraud, made contact with PAS about the new government guidance on End of Custody Temporary Release (ECTR).
Prior to the Covid-19 restrictions, the prisoner had been working in the community on five daily ROTLs (release on temporary licence), visiting his partner and helping to care for their disabled child. After lockdown he was unable to provide this assistance and his partner was left to cope on her own.
Although he was within the last two months of his sentence, he contacted PAS after the prison informed him that he was ineligible for ECTR.
We advised him that he was eligible for consideration under ECTR guidance, and he was identified as such by the ECTR team. The prisoner signed the application paperwork for ECTR on 16th April 2020.
PAS corresponded regularly with the prison and the ECTR team, pressing for the prisoner’s application to be considered urgently, and for information regarding the application’s progress to be relayed to the prisoner and his partner. The prisoner’s ECTR was finally granted on 28th May.
This case highlights the distress caused to prisoners and their relatives by the lack of transparency surrounding ECTR applications. PAS has subsequently communicated to the head of the ECTR team the importance of keeping prisoner’s informed at this distressing time.
PAS Appears on Victoria Derbyshire
PAS Solicitor Laura Orger appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme to discuss the temporary release of prisoners with severe health issues during the coronavirus crisis.
PAS Posts New Covid-19 Success Story
PAS assisted a prisoner who had called our Advice Line about the refusal to grant him release on Home Detention Curfew (HDC), the scheme under which prisoners can be released up to four and a half months before the halfway point of their sentence on an electronic tag. He was serving a two year sentence for a driving offence and was already past his HDC eligibility date.
Before that date he had been told everything was fine and that he would be released on tag, but he was then told this was not the case and that he was now being refused release because of a caution he had received 15 years earlier for a different type of offence. Given the terrible situation with Covid-19 in prison, he was understandably anxious to overturn this refusal and be released on tag to his family.
PAS wrote to the governor, pointing out that within the terms of the Prison Service Framework on HDC the prisoner should not be considered as ineligible, but as someone who, although ‘presumed unsuitable’ can nevertheless be released under ‘exceptional circumstances’ if the governor agrees to it. There was some delay before we got any response, despite copying our email to various officials in charge of HDC policy, as well as to the prison governor, but after two weeks of emailing, we were told by the prisoner’s family outside that he had been freed on tag and was back home with them.
PAS Receives Access to Further MoJ Covid Policies
PAS has received access to further guidance and policy documents relating to the treatment of prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic, which should be, but are not, available to the public at this time. We regularly take hundreds of calls from prisoners to our Advice Line asking for information and clarity on their entitlements during the pandemic as they are often given little or vague information about changes to the regime.
These documents (below) cover a range of matters, from cohorting prisoners and the management of symptomatic and shielded prisoners, to prisoner regimes during the pandemic. Of note is: the maintenance of the entitlement to 30 minutes in the open air daily; that all prisoners, regardless of IEP status are to be provided with a TV; the provision for prison to prison transfer only in exceptional circumstances such as compassionate family or specific legal circumstances.
PAS Posts Urgent New Guidance on Compassionate Release Cases
Follow link here for full story and links to new Guidance.
Direct link to new Guidance here.
Update on the Temporary Release of Prisoners – Only 18 So Far
On 4 April the government announced that in response to the Covid-19 pandemic it would be bringing in measures whereby prisoners nearing the end of their sentence could be released on temporary licence. The press reported that ‘up to 4,000 prisoners would be released.
The following day, 5 April, the relevant law was published under Statutory Instrument 2020 No. 400: The Prison and Young Offender Institution (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020
The Statutory Instrument provides for a wide power to temporarily release any determinate sentenced prisoner who is not a sex offender, Category A or liable for deportation. However it also states that the precise criteria for which prisoners will be released is subject to a direction from the Secretary of State.
Such directions were issued to prisons and probation officers on 7 April but were not made public. This has led to massive confusion as to who is and is not eligible. At PAS we have had hundreds of inquiries about this. In the meantime, Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer told the parliamentary Justice Committee on 14 April that the total number of prisoners released on temporary licence so far was just 18.
The unpublished guidance imposes severe limitations on the eligibility criteria for temporary release, excluding anyone with a sentence of four years or more (although this is apparently open to further review) and limiting the scheme to prisoners with less than 61 days left to serve.
Prisoners’ Advice Service is concerned both that the guidance on temporary release has not been put in the public domain, and that its scope is so narrow as to preclude almost all prisoners who would not in any case be eligible for release under the Home Detention Curfew electronic tagging scheme. The Covid-19 panic is seriously affecting the health and well-being of all prisoners and the powers which now exist in the Statutory Instrument could make a concrete difference and save lives if fully utilised.
Pas Sends Urgent Letter to Secretary of State for Justice
On 15 April, Prisoners’ Advice Service sent an urgent letter to the Secretary of State for Justice/Public Protection Casework Section asking for the existing guidance on Early Release on Compassionate Grounds to be amended to reflect the current pandemic situation and permit the release of prisoners in categories recognised as particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
30/3/20 – UPDATED 2/4/20
Compassionate Early Release Letter Template To Download and Use
PAS is calling for the release of low risk prisoners and those who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus (see below). Please find below a draft letter for anyone to use and amend if they believe that a prisoner should be released early on compassionate grounds given the extreme circumstances of the coronavirus emergency. This letter asks the prison Governor to recommend to the Secretary of State for Justice that the prisoner is released on compassionate grounds, or to consider an application for temporary release, as well as to confirm to you, either way, what steps are being taken to protect the vulnerable person in prison. Please feel free to share this letter with anyone you believe it may help. Please let PAS know if you receive a response.
NB: This letter template is only applicable to prisoners serving determinate sentences. Those serving indeterminate or life sentences should seek legal advice from their prison lawyer or contact PAS for further information.
PAS Calls for the Release of Prisoners
On 16 March 2020, PAS issued a statement calling on the government to assist in slowing down the potential coronavirus crisis in prisons by releasing the following groups of prisoners:
1. Everybody aged over 75, no matter what their conviction.
2. Those over 50 convicted of non-violent/sex crimes.
3. People held under immigration detention powers, whether in prison or detention centres.
4. All those who have under a year of their sentence left to serve.
5. All prisoners with physical disabilities.
6. People awaiting extradition.
7. IPP prisoners whose tariffs have expired.
We stated that these measures would have no discernible effect on the crime rate and would allow prisons to implement strategies for safely managing and caring for those high risk prisoners who remain incarcerated.
First PAS Coronavirus Case Study
Pas Helps Sickle Cell Anaemia Sufferer to Be Released to Self-Isolate at His Father’s
PAS received a call to our Advice Line last week, from a prisoner to due to be released to an Approved Premises (AP) on Friday, despite the fact that he has Sickle Cell Anaemia, which is one of the highest risk groups for coronavirus infection and full-blown COVID-19. As the AP would be shared with other residents, the prisoner was scared, worried about exposure to the coronavirus, but had been told by the Parole Board that he had no option but to be released there.
The prisoner’s father had offered to accommodate his son so he could safely self-isolate for the recommended 12 weeks for Sickle Cell and his Offender Supervisor (OS) had been trying to contact the Offender Manager (OM) for three weeks in order to enact this arrangement, but without success. The prisoner had had three OMs recently and did not know the name of the most recent one. PAS advised that we’d attempt to contact the OM to make informal representations for the prisoner to be released to his father’s place of residence.
With the help of a very good London-based Probation Officer, previously known to PAS, we managed to track down the OM and suggested a Home Circumstances Report – over the phone – and prompt change to the prisoner’s licence in light of Public Health England’s Guidance on vulnerable groups and coronavirus. We then spoke with the OM on the phone again and were assured that a new Home Circumstances Report had been done and that the prisoner would be released to his father’s as we wanted.