Those of you who have been regular attenders at the PET Carol Concert in St Paul’s Church will miss that wonderful event, which brings the PET family so warmly together.
Inevitably this Christmas will be like no other. Quite apart from its social privations, we all mourn the loss of my predecessor as Chair of PET, Paul Maxlow-Tomlinson, a victim to Covid-19 at the age of 89.
If I had had the opportunity to speak to you in person in St Paul’s Church, I should have been tempted to continue my annual theme of praising prison reformers of the past: Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Alexander Maconachie and John Howard.
My themes have also marked the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, and the creation of Prisoner Learning Alliance awards. I wonder which outstanding prison reformer I should have selected if I was standing at the lectern this year?
Hopefully all may be revealed if I am able to resume this annual celebration in December 2021.
However what I have chosen as the front-runner for this message is to encourage you to focus on the circumstances in which those whom we know in prison, and on whose behalf we are all involved, have had their lives so circumscribed since lockdown began last March.
Everyone knows that prison conditions since 23rd March have not only been dire, but have been as unprecedented as they were unforeseeable. Cellular confinement for at least 23 hours per day across the estate – in some cases up to 23½ hours daily.
The cessation of visits, initially for over 4 months. When visits temporarily resumed, they were restored in restricted circumstances. Now visits have again ceased.
All face to face education, training activity, purposeful activity and gym access has stopped.
Coursework designed to achieve the rehabilitation of those serving sentences whose progression demands their satisfactory completion has halted. Normal association on the Wings, essential for the maintenance of mental health and well-being, has ended.
These unprecedented conditions are equivalent to the imposition of segregation conditions.
As a lawyer I continue to note developments in the law. Last April, when lockdown had lasted only a few weeks, the Court of Appeal accepted that these unprecedented conditions justified the suspension of a sentence which would otherwise have resulted in an immediate custodial sentence; and the reduction of an immediate sentence by 25%.
Had the court appreciated for how long those conditions would persist, a greater reduction in sentence length might have been authorised.
Try to keep a place in your hearts for those who must endure these continuing restricted conditions, even over Christmas; and if this encourages you to dig even deeper and more generously than you otherwise would at this time of year, you can be sure that your donation will be put to the most excellent use.
John Samuels QC, PET President