What is the Covid-19 Special Interest Group?
The voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system continue to face unprecedented challenges in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, both in terms of safeguarding service users and staff in the short term, and ensuring the long-term existence and sustainability of our vital organisations.
The Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) has set up a Special Interest Group (SIG) on Covid-19, in order to formally channel policy suggestions to the government on how they can protect people in contact with the criminal justice system and their families, and ensure the future of the voluntary sector working in criminal justice.
The RR3 is a formal voluntary sector advisory group to the government, consisting of 16 senior voluntary sector leaders, which is chaired and coordinated by Clinks. The Covid-19 SIG is sponsored by Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust and Nicky Park, St Giles and consists of RR3 members, plus additional experts co-opted for their specialist expertise. The group meets weekly to make recommendations to the government.
This blog shares the key points that emerged from the fourth meeting of the group on 8th April 2020.
Key points from the latest meeting of the Covid-19 Special Interest Group
Making the early release scheme work
The government’s announcement that they would begin to release people from prison early on license was rightly welcomed as an important step in reducing overcrowding in prison, but there has since been a lack of information about how the scheme will work in practice. Voluntary organisations who are gearing up to provide essential support to people on release have been left in the dark over how many people are expected to be released in each area and when. There was also a suggestion at the Justice Committee this week that far fewer than the supposed top-end target of 4,000 people will be released due to the tight eligibility criteria that has been set for the scheme.
Reflecting on this lack of information and confusion within the sector, the group made the following recommendations on how the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) can make the early release scheme work and what voluntary organisations need to support:
- MoJ and HMPPS should publish full information regarding the eligibility criteria for the early release scheme, projections for the numbers of people eligible in each area, the timelines for releases and the information that needs to be passed on to people in prison and their families
- HMPPS plans for early release should be shared now with service delivery organisations locally and nationally that stand ready to assist, and include named contacts centrally and regionally
- HMPPS should remove restricted marking from all its operational guidance and share widely and in a timely way with the voluntary sector, families, prisoners and those under supervision in the community
- MoJ, HMPPS and Youth Custody Service (YCS) should establish with voluntary organisations and Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) a clear plan to coordinate the release of each child from a secure setting.
Supporting all people in the criminal justice system
The focus on people being released early must not mean we miss the needs of the roughly 5,000 people who are released from prison every month. At the best of times, a large proportion of this group faces serious challenges in accessing the services they need to resettle into the community. The Covid-19 pandemic is compounding many of these difficulties, with housing, welfare and health services facing increased demand while having to rapidly change the way they deliver their services.
The group have made a number of recommendations to officials to help address some of these challenges over the past weeks, and many of these remain relevant, outstanding and highly urgent. The group reiterated a number of these priority recommendations in their paper to officials, including:
- MoJ and HMPPS should establish an accommodation guarantee for people leaving prison, by establishing new accommodation in hotels or other settings. MoJ and HMPPS should engage with charities on how best to implement this as soon as possible.
- The discharge grant should be immediately increased to the equivalent of six weeks’ benefits for the duration of the crisis to ensure people leaving prison have enough money to meet their basic needs.
- People leaving prison must be given a smart phone, if they don’t have one, with internet access in order to access virtual services and maintain contact during isolation. Some people may need financial or practical assistance to maintain internet or phone access for the purposes of both support and complying with supervision requirements.
Clinks is engaging in ongoing discussions with officials at MoJ and HMPPS to reflect the key points of RR3 meetings to officials, to push for the implementation of our recommendations and be responsive to the changing policy context. Members of the group have also met this week with officials to provide immediate feedback on specific policies being developed by the department.
We are also asking HMPPS to provide regular formal updates on whether our recommendations are being addressed and how.
What else Clinks is doing
This is an unsettling time for everyone and we know there is a lot of fast-changing information which can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Clinks and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance have therefore produced a webpage which provides sector-specific information, signposts to helpful information from the wider voluntary sector, and answers some frequently asked questions. We'll also continue to provide updates as needed in our ebulletins, including Light Lunch, and on our Twitter accounts @Clinks_Tweets and @ArtsCJS.
We also have a mailbox - firstname.lastname@example.org - for voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system who have concerns or questions regarding how Covid-19 will affect their operations or the information they should provide to service users. Organisations should direct queries to their local contact or contract managers where possible, and submit specific questions to the mailbox if you’re struggling to get them answered.