Covid-19: UK prisoners with health issues 'face death sentences'

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

Maurice Stevens has been fighting to highlight the injustice of his son’s imprisonment for more than a decade – but with the Covid-19 pandemic claiming its first death among the 83,000 prisoners in England and Wales the pressure is on.

An 84-year-old sex offender was confirmed as the first British inmate to die after contracting coronavirus, with another 19 prisoners infected across 10 prisons. The death and rising number of cases behind bars has prompted calls for those with underlying health conditions to be at least temporarily released.

Stevens’s son, Danny Weatherson, 31, is in Northumberland prison. He was 17 when he was sentenced to a minimum term of 15 months for attempted robbery of a phone and a coat under a controversial imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence.

Under IPPs, which were abolished in 2012 after a European court found them to be unlawful, offenders were given a minimum term but no release date. The sentences were used far more widely than intended, and in many cases for relatively low-level crimes.

Aside from a brief period of release during which he was recalled to prison, Weatherson has been in jail for 14 years and his father has been fighting to raise the profile of his son’s plight ever since.

Eight months ago, Weatherson was diagnosed with two blood clots on his lung and is receiving medication. Stevens says the emergence of the coronavirus, which affects the respiratory system, has deeply troubled both father and son.

“He’s just terrified now,” Stevens says from his home near Gateshead. “He was hoping for a July parole hearing but it appears all the face-to-face hearings have been suspended. I spoke to him five days ago and he was telling us all about his lungs, how they’re feeling worse.”

Weatherson, who has bipolar disorder, has attempted to kill himself twice in prison, and Stevens is worried the panic over the virus could deeply upset his son.

“They need to hold emergency parole hearings because of the coronavirus. He’s done a lot of time. What are they trying to achieve? They keep a lad in there for 14 years for trying to steal a phone? What does it achieve?”

Appeal, a charity law practice that specialises in fighting miscarriages of justice, has called for the temporary or early release of the following groups: prisoners convicted of non-violent offences whose appeal applications have passed the single judge screening stage; prisoners on remand charged with non-violent offences; prisoners aged over 70; prisoners with pre-existing serious health conditions; pregnant women, and all prisoners in category D minimum security open prisons.

Emily Bolton, Appeal’s legal director, said: “For the government to leave prisoners to die of Covid-19 behind bars when these deaths could be avoided is like leaving prisoners to drown in Orleans parish prison when the waters rose after Hurricane Katrina.

“Britain is better than this, and time is running out to avoid minor offences becoming capital crimes, and life sentences from becoming death sentences.”

One of Appeal’s cases is that of Roger Khan, a man with Barret’s Oesphagus, a condition which causes wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

Khan, 66, is in Oakwood prison, where a case of Covid-19 has been confirmed. He was sentenced to 30 years for attempted murder and has been in prison for nine years.

His partner, Marie, who asked to use a pseudonym, said: “I’m worried he’s going to die in prison. That does worry me. He’s really ill.

“I’d like him to be released on tag because of his health. He shouldn’t be around the prison with the coronavirus; if he gets it he will die.”

Marie said Khan had had pleurisy, which affects the lungs, and was currently isolated in Oakwood as he was classed as vulnerable.

“I’m quite disgusted with the prison and fearful for Roger. He should be released on medical grounds.”

Another Appeal case is that of Jon Beere, one of the Freshwater Five – five men jailed for smuggling 255kg of cocaine worth £53m in a fishing boat.

Beere, 51, who is also in Oakwood, was jailed for 24 years and has served nine. He is due to be released automatically in three years and is currently a category D prisoner.

After a long battle to appeal against the conviction, Beere has been granted a permission hearing before three judges and is waiting for a date.

His wife, Sue, who lives on the Isle of Wight, said: “He rang me to say Oakwood had its first confirmed case. The guy is in healthcare in isolation, and there’s another 15 people in isolation, on lockdown, on the same wing.”

She said her husband was “a ‘red band’ prisoner, which means he’s a trusted prisoner, so he has access to all the different wings and does jobs, like maintenance, supplies.

“He is literally on every wing, so in that respect that worries me because he could have come into contact – we know how long the germs can live on metal surfaces, prison is pretty much full of metal surfaces.”

She said the authorities should release all category D prisoners or those who had a short time left to serve.

John Whitwam, the managing director of G4S Custodial and Detention Services, which operates Oakwood prison, said: “We have confirmed one case of coronavirus at HMP Oakwood. The health and safety of our staff and the people in our care is our top priority and we have existing, well-developed policies and procedures in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

“We are in regular discussion with Public Health England and are following their guidance. The person concerned had already been self-isolating since last Tuesday, in accordance with national guidance, and will remain in isolation and in regular consultation with our on-site health professionals. His family have been contacted and will be kept up to date.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The government’s absolute priority is to protect health and we have robust and flexible plans in place to keep prisoners, staff and the wider public safe based on the latest advice from Public Health England.”