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The unpublished guidance imposes severe limitations on the eligibility criteria for temporary release, excluding anyone with a sentence of four years or more (although this is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.