By Pamela Belonwu, Criminal Justice Policy & Campaigns officer with the Traveller Movement
The Coronavirus crisis means most of us are in some form of lockdown. It spotlights how we look after our most vulnerable. Some have compared our nationwide restrictions to being in prison. Many will be familiar with the often-quoted statistic: Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people make up 0.1% of the general population but, comprise 5% of the prison population.[i]
Those of us involved in supporting GRT people, in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) know that this statistic is probably an under estimate. Many GRT people are reluctant to declare their ethnicity due to a well-founded fear of discrimination. Some of us have witnessed this discrimination first hand within some parts of the CJS, and we have challenged it. We will continue to do so. As time passes compelling statistics are starting to emerge evidencing the disproportionate impact of Coronavirus on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people. There are calls for an inquiry into this, once the crisis is over. Like other communal environments, such as care homes, opportunities for Coronavirus to spread through personal and social contact in prisons are extremely high.
Two weeks ago the Ministry of Justice encouragingly announced plans to roll out a temporary early release scheme for some low risk inmates. Despite this commitment, progress remains slow. On 14 April, the CEO of HMPPS, Jo Farrar confirmed 13 inmates and 3 prison staff members had died of Coronavirus; 203 inmates and 49 staff have tested positive.
There are growing demands to also release those who are most vulnerable, due to poor health. One of our biggest challenges is we do not truly know how many GRT people are in prison.
We do know that GRT people generally:
- Experience poorer physical and mental health, compared to the general population. They have a shorter life expectancy.
- For many GRT people, due to problems registering permanently with a GP, access to prison healthcare is often the first, in a long time where they have relatively easy access to healthcare. Reduction to 'normal’ prison healthcare means minor conditions risk being left untreated and might worsen, leaving them more vulnerable to Coronavirus.
- GRT people in prison, rely heavily on peer support, often for cultural reasons. Although not exclusive to these ethnic groups, of particular concern are Irish Traveller men, who have higher prevalence of suicide and self-harm. Restricted regimes and social distancing will have a major detrimental impact on mental health and, potentially increase suicide attempts and incidents of self -harm among this high-risk group. [ii]
- Inmates who sadly self-harm or attempt suicide during this time are at critical risk. Staff has a duty of care towards them. Social distancing cannot be observed if administering life-saving treatment. There might also be delays to getting outside help from ambulance services.[iii]
- Roma people, who do not speak or read English well, and rely on friends to interpret and translate risk being unable to access and/or understand important health information. This will also apply to people who have low literacy levels.
This is a crisis on the horizon for GRT people. Through our Criminal Justice work we will continue to campaign to improve data collection and monitoring across the CJS. The Lammy Review, (2017) made a recommendation to address this for GRT people; it introduced the principle of ‘explain or reform’[iv]. In reality we cannot accurately measure and evaluate the impact of Coronavirus on GRT people in prison, compared to other BAME groups, because there is no accurate data. Under these circumstances, with lives at risk, this is unacceptable; It’s time to ‘explain or reform’.
And, for anyone, on the ‘outside,’ who compares our lockdown to being in prison – remember you have the keys to your own door.
 January 2015; Improving the health of Gypsies and Travellers: The Traveller Movement
[ii] June 2018, Policing by Consent: Understanding and improving relations between Gypsies, Roma, Travellers and the Police: The Traveller Movement
[iii] March 2019, Traveller Movement Policy briefing: Addressing mental health and suicide among Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in England
[iv] The Lammy Review: Final Report (2017)