A top defence barrister has demanded that the Government acts now on “hellish” and “inhumane” prison conditions, amid fears of riots and the spread of coronavirus.
Jeremy Dein QC described the situation as “pandemonium” and said all non-dangerous criminals and many of the 30,000 people on remand awaiting trial should be released.
His call was echoed by a woman who fears for her partner, a non-violent category C prisoner, currently held at HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest jails in the UK.
In an interview with ITV London News, Mr Dein said: “Prisoners are effectively cut off from the world at the moment. Families are distraught.
“Visits have been cancelled, phone calls have been cancelled and an additional problem is remand prisoners are having no contact with their lawyers so they don’t know what’s going on.
“They are completely ignorant as to developments in their case. They are shut off from the world.”
The lawyer, who has featured in the documentary series Murder, Mystery And My Family, said the decision to postpone new trials was understandable but had created a “massive backlog”, leaving 30,000 remand prisoners in limbo “indefinitely”.
He said the impact on mental health for prisoners and their families was a major issue, yet was “low down on the Government and public agenda”.
“Family members are complaining that the mental health of their relatives is being jeopardised. And the mental health of the families themselves is being harmed because they are so fraught with worry for their relatives that this is adding layers and layers of stress for families.
“So the whole issue of remand prisoners and prisoners as a whole is a major issue, but of course it’s at the bottom of the agenda at the moment.
“At the moment, cases are not being put back to any date at all so psychologically, to the extent prisoners are receiving any information, the information they are getting is, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’.
“When you are in a cell 24 hours a day, that’s not good news.”
He went on: “The only word that springs to my mind is pandemonium.
“The majority of prisoners are doubled up in cells. In addition, although I have no personal experience, it’s my understanding that sanitisation remains problematic and all the things we are being told to do minute by minute, hour by hour, are simply not feasible in prison because the resources are not there. The reality of the situation is hellish.
“My plea to the Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office is to find some means to avoid the prison population being the forgotten people.
“And whether convicted or not convicted, these are human beings who are just as much at risk as the rest of us.
“For those not convicted and are presumed innocent, many of those have to be released on bail. Many, many more than would usually be the case because the conditions as they stand are not acceptable and they are inhumane.
“The worst case scenario for the prisoners is that somehow the prisoners manage to riot to a degree that makes the prison completely unworkable. The system breaks down altogether.
“Looked at from another angle, terrible outbreaks of coronavirus. There are different possibilities equally as horrendous.
“Prisoners are banged up in cells 24/7, their potential for doing anything good or bad is very limited.
“I’m hearing from families about gross understaffing, prisoners wanting to riot, being physically restrained from rioting, mental health breakdowns.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that Government should be urgently releasing a large number of non-dangerous offenders to substantially reduce prisoner overcrowding and prisoner numbers.
“As for unconvicted prisoners, the courts should be granting bail far more widely.
“I know judges are sympathetic. I have spoken to a number.
“So releasing convicted prisoners, granting bail to unconvicted prisoners, these are things that need to be done not soon, but today.”
As of Wednesday, 19 prisoners tested positive for coronavirus across 10 prisons.
Earlier, the Prison Service confirmed the first British prisoner to die after contracting coronavirus was an 84-year-old man with underlying health conditions at category C jail HMP Littlehey in Cambridgeshire.
On Thursday, it was announced a second inmate, a 66-year-old man serving a sentence at HMP Manchester, had died.
Mr Dein added: “As soon as coronavirus gets into prisons, the problem escalates to a new level.”
Also speaking to ITV News, a woman voiced her fears having not seen her partner at HMP Wandsworth for three weeks.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the woman claimed one elderly inmate was suffering from Covid-19 and she had been told there was no toilet roll, sanitiser or running water in her partner’s two-person cell.
On the prospect of an outbreak at HMP Wandsworth, she said: “The Government are talking about a strain on the NHS. You can only imagine the strain that one prison would be to the NHS.”
Calling for the release of all category C prisoners to relieve overcrowding, she said: “Obviously not all of them do the right thing and make the right choices, but they are paying for what any of them have done and regardless the people in there are someone’s son, someone’s loved one, someone’s dad. It’s not right at all.”
A Prison Service spokesman said: “We have strong and flexible plans in place to keep all staff and prisoners as safe as possible, and are issuing secure phone handsets to help offenders keep in contact with their families.”