Jails are a death trap: we must release all non-violent prisoners now

A interior view of Chelmsford Prison.Picture: PA/ Andrew Parsons

A interior view of Chelmsford Prison.Picture: PA/ Andrew Parsons - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The government must release all prisoners who do not pose a threat to society immediately, says Boris Johnson's former press secretary Ashish Prashar

The injustice of mass incarceration and our legal system, on both sides of the Atlantic, is the civil rights issue of our time. What is both saddening and terrifying is that it may be the onset of COVID-19 that shines a devastating light on it.

Prisons, by nature often overcrowded and with terrible access to healthcare, risk their inhabitants being among the hardest-hit groups of people in the world. As this disease rages unchecked through their walls it puts everyone at terrible risk of both the illness and the fallout as health staff leave in droves to assist on the frontlines of civilian hospitals. The reality is that you can't social distance behind bars. That's why the reluctance of leaders to release non-threatening inmates immediately is immoral and indefensible.

Despite the urgency of the situation, our leaders continue to put thousands of people's lives at risk by trapping them in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Unfortunately, COVID-19 infects in clusters; inmates packed into small cells are like lambs to the slaughter. Swift action is the only viable option.

Incarceration is devastating to personal and public health under normal circumstances. Inadequate access to medical care has long been a concern for incarcerated people, and this pandemic inexorably raises the stakes. For years, we've been banging the drum that mass incarceration kills, yet our leaders have remained unmoved. Maybe they just didn't believe it, feel it, or even understand it.

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As a proud Londoner and New Yorker alike, it is damning to see the similarities on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, people of colour make up 26% of the prison population, and just 14% of the general population. In the States, African-American individuals are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people - representing more than half of incarcerated people in the US, but just 32% of the population. Frankly people are going to start dying in jails and prisons at extraordinarily high rates because citizens, prosecutors, judges and our leaders view them as less deserving of life - as less than human.

I know this from experience - I was sentenced to a year at a young offender institute in the UK, where dehumanisation was the de facto experience as soon as I arrived, with guards encouraging fights and brutally penalising teenagers after tiny provocations.

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My experience is not that much different from what teenagers and adults experience in prison today, except that now there's a nightmare on the loose: coronavirus is threatening lives.

Now prisons are literally a death trap, as the highly infectious virus has already led to over 55 confirmed UK prisoner cases and many more in the US. The WHO has suggested there will be 'huge mortality rates' within jails if nothing is done - and it is time for our leaders to release all non-violent prisoners without hesitation.

So why are our leaders being so slow to act? Because they find it more palatable to turn a blind eye to the deaths this pandemic will pile up in our prisons and jails, rather than treat people who are incarcerated with care and respect, who are of a certain class, and disproportionately black and brown. They are practising (yes, practising) institutional racism and class-based prejudice, underpinned by the belief prisoners are acceptable targets of indiscriminate anger and disdain. This idea is so ingrained, many are willing to risk worsening the crisis to protect it.

The underlying problem that Covid-19 is exposing is that we lock up too many people to begin with. If we did the meaningful work of being extra judicious about incarcerating fellow humans in the first place we wouldn't now be scrambling to fight for their release. Vulnerable people have already suffered greatly in confinement, with no clear mission for correction, and now could suffer worse, possibly even die. Our jails and prisons are soon going to become a humanitarian disaster and I urge elected officials to stand up for our communities and release people immediately. It's time to stop dithering and start acting with real consideration for our fellow human beings.

Ashish Prashar FRSA is a board member of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out Staying Out New York and Leap Confronting Conflict and was press secretary to Boris Johnson during his 2008 and 2012 London mayoral election campaigns

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