Soon after my release from prison for fraud conviction, I returned to practice yoga in Primrose Hill.
I felt like I was walking the plank of shame in entering the neighbourhood (where social passport control is virtually mandatory even for the blameless), whose last memories of me were being pursued by paparazzi in the tree lined road, while my life, fact and fiction, was sprawled across the Daily Mail and beyond.
Re-entry was quite anticlimactic. In my gratis non persona, no one noticed me, beyond – maybe – my three-legged, downward facing dog and failure to embrace an apparently new fixation for Lululemon. Apart, that is, from one startled local.
As I staggered from the yoga studio, I made eye contact with a “friend” who had eaten in my home regularly, shared my family’s life – until I became a “pariah”. The expression seeing a ghost had never resonated with me before, but here in broad daylight I saw myself embodying the spirit of the dead in his eyes. Because I was never meant to come back.
During a decade spent adjusting to my own rehabilitation and increasingly supporting that of others through my charity, I am now very familiar with society’s perception of those who have been sentenced or remanded into custody.
The government’s contract to punish and rehabilitate is frequently ignored by its purveyors and the general public. Once guilty in the eyes of the law, HMP’s 85,000 inhabitants lose relevance. The key is thrown away, the individual erased.
The principle of rehabilitation – living again – is left to human rights lobbyists to recite on the Today programme. Few countenance its existence as a legal tenet of the criminal justice system. Yet, fewer truly subscribe to its implementation beyond Probation Service stalwarts.
Prison in the time of Coronavirus is a justice game changer. HMP is officially closed for rehabilitation. Social visits have ceased. Education, training and employment programmes are unlikely to resume for the foreseeable. Residents describe being forced to defecate into bags and urinate into bottles. Basic sanitation ceased weeks ago, social distancing and shielding is an impossibility.
If you set out to create laboratory conditions to engender the transmission of Covid-19, a UK prison would be as good a starting point as any. It’s egregious human experimentation worthy of the Third Reich. Overcrowded cells are treated as “households”, compulsory, indiscriminate quarantining of sick prisoners forces those with the common cold into the path of coronavirus. Prisoners are behind doors 24/7. As UK pandemic deaths exceed 20,000, each UK prison sentence is potentially a death sentence.
The virus has lifted the lid on a global prison crisis. Chronic overcrowding and underfunding affect 11 million prisoners, whose mortality rate is 50% higher than in the outside world. And the world is finally listening.
Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia are releasing its prisoners in the thousands. France and Ireland have dramatically reduced its prison population. The European Centre for Crime and Justice Studies strives to redefine and reassess its nineteenth century solution in the face of millennial catastrophe.
However, to date, the UK has released barely a dozen pregnant inmates. Fourteen inmates have been deemed eligible for its now suspended early release programme. It plans to build 500 temporary cells in six prisons. Prison infections currently stand at 300, deaths at 15, figures likely to be under reported and inaccurate. It is failing its prisoners.
And it seems our government has no inclination to heed the global message. It is therefore imperative that it listens to its courts this week which will consider the legal challenge instigated by the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust, reflecting the guidelines from the Prison Governors Association that 10,000-15,000 prisoners must necessarily be released immediately to enable authorities to implement effective social distancing and to avert humanitarian crisis.
Poor choices, momentary judgement lapses, inequality of social advantage and circumstance. These are merely some of the indiscriminate and life shattering factors that can lead to a prison cell.
During this zeitgeist of kindness and altruism, compassion would be well extended to society’s most vulnerable, whose rehabilitation is always elusive and whose punishment, at the point of global crisis, now far exceeds that envisaged by any court.
Pariahs belong in another age. Our prisoners must be allowed to come back.
Victoria Kate Johns is an ex-prisoner and Founder of Leather Inside Out.