Extraordinary measures are being taken by the UK government to tackle Covid-19 which, by its own admission, would not normally be expected outside of wartime. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has acknowledged, ‘this is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy’. Emergency measures are rightly being taken to prioritise protecting health and saving lives.

Prisons pose a particular risk in light of a global pandemic. In the UK, prisons are extremely overcrowded and often unhygienic, and there is concern that Covid-19 may ‘spread like wildfire’ among prisoners and staff alike. A great number of particularly vulnerable people are detained in UK prisons: prisoners are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, and there is an ageing prison population. The virus has already been detected in UK prisons and it has been estimated that an outbreak could lead to 800 avoidable deaths. Without action, prisons will become a death trap.

Emergency measures are being taken to restrict the risk of the virus spreading, including the suspension of prison visits on 24th March. Limited measures have also been taken to extend access to an early release scheme where individuals are subject to electronic tagging and a curfew. But much more needs to be done, and experts are calling for the considered, managed release of vulnerable and non-violent offenders as a matter of urgency. Other countries have already facilitated this en masse, including Iran and Turkey, while US states are also beginning to release prisoners. The Justice Secretary has indicated that he is looking ‘very carefully’ at whether or not 50 pregnant prisoners could be released, as well as the transfer of some prisoners held on remand to bail hostels.

Such calls cannot ignore the fact that prisons in the UK are already at breaking point, in part, due to the huge number of individuals detained there for drug offences. In England and Wales, these make up 15% of the convicted prison population and 18% of those held on remand (a problem made worse when courts are on the verge of closure). In its March 2020 briefing paper, Penal Reform International recommended that ‘individuals convicted for minor or non-violent offenses, especially those sentenced for drug-related offenses or for socio-economic offenses, should be immediately considered for release.’ Many may only have a short time on their sentences remaining, and should not be forced to serve this in prison where it only places themselves and others at risk.

In an emergency, policy choices must focus on what is necessary. The safe release of particularly vulnerable individuals — including older prisoners, immuno-compromised individuals, and pregnant women — must of course be considered as a matter of urgency, but wider additional measures need to be taken to ease strain on the prison system as a whole. If the government is looking for the right pressure valve to release, then it must start by looking at individuals detained for non-violent drug and drug related offences, a population whose continued detention has long swelled the UK prison system past breaking point. As the Chancellor has acknowledged, this is not a time for ideology. There is a strong argument that detention of non-violent drug offenders is unnecessary and counterproductive even in normal times. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis it is unambiguously contributing to serious danger in the prison system.

There are other risks. In 2019, 17% of random mandatory drug tests in prisons in England and Wales were positive. Last week, it was reported that almost 1,000 prison officers were in self-isolation, and emergency service provision unfolding in UK prisons includes the cessation of cell searches and drug tests. On 24th March, the Justice Secretary told the House of Commons Justice Committee that 3,500 prison officers (around 10% of the workforce) were now self-isolating. With reduced access to treatment, support and oversight, people who use drugs in prison are left at a heightened risk of harm. In Italy, shortly after an emergency decree suspending prison visits highly similar to that issued in the UK on 24th March, 12 inmates died during riots, mostly as a result of overdoses from drugs taken from the medical room.

There are obvious challenges. We need clear policy guidelines to govern release, as well as carefully implemented procedures to ensure safety. This includes actions to minimise the risk of Covid-19 being spread from prisons back into the wider community, as well as ensuring support is available for prisoners to reintegrate them safely — even within a lockdown environment. For individuals with problematic drug use, this includes ensuring they have housing secured in advance, and increasing the availability of treatment provision and harm reduction services in the community. This includes lower threshold access to opioid substitution treatment and naloxone, given that recently released prisoners are at significantly greater risk of overdose.

However, without action, UK prisons are a death trap. We know that this is not a time for orthodoxy. There needs to be considered, managed release of individuals from the UK prison system and when doing this, the government must question the necessity of detaining non-violent drug offenders.

Harvey Slade, Research and Policy Officer at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.