Prisoners should not face a death sentence as the virus runs through the jails, argues John Rees
Doctors are required to take the Hippocratic oath that they will ‘do no harm’. Judges have no similar oath, which is fortunate for Magistrate Venessa Baraitser, who presides over Julian Assange’s extradition hearing.
No doctor could have decided, without breaching the Hippocratic oath, as this magistrate did last week, to refuse Julian Assange bail and enforce his continued imprisonment in Belmarsh high security prison.
There, already weakened by a lung complaint, Assange waits in his cell while coronavirus rips through the prison population. The judge deliberately, purposefully, knowingly, has placed Assange in harm’s way.
In doing so she flew in the face of nearly every authority, medical or penal, that has voiced an opinion on this issue.
The head of the Prison Governors Association has warned that ‘there will be deaths’ in prisons as the virus spreads. Her prediction began to come true as the first prisoner died of Covid 19 last week. A second prisoner has died since.
The Prison Officers Association has called for the release of vulnerable prisoners. No wonder when the massively overcrowded jails put staff as well as prisoners at risk. Some 3,500 prison staff, 10 percent of the workforce, are already self-isolating. Another 900 probation staff are self-isolating.
The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has demanded that prisoners, especially those accused of political offences, be released. The World Health Organisation, the Prison Advisory Service, Appeal, and the Howard League for Penal Reform, which said that the virus will ‘spread like wildfire’ in prisons, have all demanded a wider release policy to save lives. The former chief inspector of prisons has added his voice to those calling for inmates to be allowed out.
Even as Judge Vanessa Baraitser was kicking out Assange’s bail application on the grounds that government advice was to carry on as normal, the Scottish government was considering a prisoner release and Robert Buckland, the Tory Justice Minister, was telling MPs the same might have to happen south of the border.
Since then some 14 prisons and 27 prisoners have reported being infected. It is only a matter of time until it spreads through the entire prison system.
Britain has over 83,000 people under lock and key, the highest in Western Europe. On one estimate 800 could lose their lives if measures aren’t taken to reduce the threat to inmates.
All that the government has done so far is to stop friends and family visits to prisoners, to lock them down in their cells, and to talk of turning detention centres into prisons so that social distancing among prisoners can take place.
But that won’t be enough to deal with the UK’s massively overcrowded and unsanitary prisons without the release of prisoners that pose no threat to the public. There has already been a riot in one Scottish prison, following similar riots in 27 Italian prisons. Hundreds of prisoners in a Brazilian jail broke free after family visits were halted.
The UK government can either follow the prisoner release policy of US prisons, of Iran, Egypt, and Turkey or face similar developments in this country.
Julian Assange is imprisoned for no crime. He is no danger to the public. He cannot be allowed to wait in his cell until he is infected with a killer virus.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.