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UK Government Fails to Comply with International Human Rights Obligations during Pandemic

Prison Regime to be Challenged in the United Nations Special Procedures

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all countries to implement significant restrictions on the lives of individuals in order to attempt to control the spread of the disease, that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

The policies enacted have had varying degrees of success, and as much as such restrictions have, and continue to cause a plethora of problems for those effected, the majority of us have been able to cope, and take our own steps to ensure that we as individuals, and our families, are protected as far as possible.

The same cannot be said however, for those whose movements are already subject to the complete control of the State, namely those serving custodial sentences in prison.

A prisoner has already had his or her liberty removed by way of punishment, and in being held in custody, is subjected to the regime of the prison.

A prisoner is told when and where they can move, they are told where they are to sleep, and when they can leave their cell.

A prisoner cannot take any steps to protect themselves or others, other than those proscribed by the prison itself.

The UK Government appeared to recognise the very specific problem that was facing prisons, namely a compressed population in a finite area of space with little or no ability to prevent the spread of infection.

Its approach therefore appeared to be the ‘early’ release of thousands of inmates who were serving a sentence for a non-violent offence in an effort to ease the population (one that is already said to be overcrowded), and thus enable any outbreak within the prison estate to be controlled, or at least mitigated.

Like so many Government promises however, and particularly those made in respect of this pandemic, it failed to materialise.

The result has been a minimal number of individuals released, under 100, despite hundreds of inmates testing positive, and hundreds more prison officers contracting the disease. The prison service is not routinely testing prisoners, so figures released are, at best, unreliable.

The Government has abjectly failed to fulfil its promises, and has instead watched on, as the disease has spread.

Other policies put into place have made an already untenable situation for some inmates demonstrably worse.

Inmates have been subjected to a ‘restricted regime’ in an effort to control movement, and therefore the spread of infection further.

This restricted regime has often simply been nothing more than inmates being forced to remain in their cells for 23 hours each day with little or no contact with anyone, and therefore suffer de facto solitary confinement.

Visits with families and legal teams have all but been stopped, and phone contact increasingly limited.

Those inmates with pre-existing mental health conditions – a substantial proportion of the those held in custody - have suffered the most, and their suffering has only been exacerbated, with little, if anything, done to relive their plight.

The government appears to be content to ignore this suffering and therefore alternative action has had to be taken.

Carl Buckley, Barrister at Guernica 37, with the support of The View Magazine, has been instructed by one such individual effected by the restricted regime, and such is her position, there has been no other option but to lodge a complaint with the UN Special Rapporteurs, with a request that they intervene.

Her treatment, it has been submitted, satisfies the definition of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, given the lack of access to visits, the lack of access to appropriate healthcare, and the fact that she is being held in de facto solitary confinement for 23 hours each day.

Her mental and physical health are deteriorating as a result of that which she, and thousands of others are forced to endure.

Women in prison are often disproportionally affected by a custodial sentence given the fact that many, if not a majority, are victims themselves, victims of physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

Women in prison demonstrate worrying levels of self-harm, and are rightly seen as particularly vulnerable.

To take virtually no steps to ensure their wellbeing, but instead impose a regime that is restrictive in the extreme without any thought as to its consequences, is at best negligent.

An individual goes to prison by way of punishment, they do not go to prison ‘to’ be punished.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a national embarrassment, and yet we do not know the true extent of its effects.

It is hoped that the UN will accept the petition filed, and seek to make demands of the UK Government in an effort to ensure the well-being and fair treatment of those held in custody.


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