The Isle of Man’s approach to enforcing a coronavirus lockdown has been branded “authoritarian” after residents, including children, who breached the rules were locked up in allegedly “inhuman” conditions without showers or exercise.
Juveniles are among those who have been jailed for breaches of the prohibition on movement regulations on the island, such as leaving home more than once for exercise, having dinner in another household, and drinking on a beach.
The island’s government strenuously denied allegations of breaches of human rights, saying its actions had been proportionate and necessary, aimed at keeping people safe in response to the unprecedented global health crisis.
There have been 24 deaths linked to Covid-19 on the Isle of Man and 336 confirmed cases. The island has a population of about 85,000.
More than 700 people have been warned for breaching the regulations, of whom 78 were arrested, including nine children. In total, 26 offenders have been jailed for breaching the emergency powers, although 11 of them also faced other charges. All those arrested had received earlier warnings.
The Isle of Man said levels of enforcement were consistent with the rest of the UK. However, a key difference in the approach is that in the first five weeks of the crisis, fixed penalty notices were not available to the police force.
Ian Kermode, a criminal barrister on the island, labelled the approach “authoritarian”.
“The real trouble started on the 31 March with the prohibition on movement regulations,” he said.
“The Isle of Man mirrored the rules in England save for one very important part, which was fixed penalty notices, the mechanism for enforcing those regulations in England, was omitted and replaced with either a fine of £10,000 or three months in jail.”
As a consequence, the police were “arresting people right, left and centre”, Kermode said. The typical sentence handed down is about 28 days.
Among those held were a 14-year-old boy, an 18-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl, Kermode said.
Other examples include: a 27-year-old man sentenced to 35 days in jail for being absent from home, and a 42-year-old woman sentenced to 35 days in jail for being absent from home; a 31-year-old man jailed for five weeks for instigating a gathering; and a 35-year-old man, who had received a previous warning, was jailed for 30 days for drinking at a friend’s house.
The lawyer said he was shocked when he discovered the conditions some of his clients were facing in prison.
The prison introduced a 14-day self-isolation regime for all new arrivals. Due to automatic release at the midway point of the sentence, most of the people jailed for lockdown breaches were spending the whole sentence in isolation.
The isolation regime meant some inmates faced 14 days without showers or exercise. The only time the cell door was opened was to deliver 24 hours’ worth of meals.
“The prison population averages between 80 and 90 – all of a sudden they were faced with a sudden influx of 20 and 30 prisoners in little over a month,” Kermode said. “The very time when prisons around the world were releasing prisoners to reduce prison crowding, the IoM prison was suddenly faced with 20 to 30 prisoners.”
Kermode said there was potential for those imprisoned to bring cases in the higher Manx courts and even the European court of human rights, as he alleges there may have been breaches of article three of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment.
Since complaints have been raised, procedures at the jail have been altered and the island’s government eventually introduced fixed penalty notices. However, Kermode says they have not been well used.
The government said it refuted allegations that prisoners received “inhuman or degrading” treatment, adding prisoners were given in-cell exercise regimes and access to in-cell sanitation facilities.
“While this regime affected a small cohort of prisoners, the remaining wings in the prison operated on a less rigorous regime, designed to mitigate transmission of coronavirus, but still retained access to exercise, showers and legal advice,” it said.
“The government strenuously refutes any allegations of breaches of human rights.”
The Isle of Man prison has a capacity of 144. In England and Wales, the government has reduced the headcount in prisons by about 3,000 as it attempts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 behind bars. Other nations have released prisoners early to ease the burden.
Phil Matthews, the chair of Amnesty International Isle of Man, said: “These are exceptional circumstances, but we know that emergency powers can sometimes be misused, and this must not give a green light to trample on our basic human rights and liberties.
“The reports are incredibly concerning and could suggest a heavy-handed application of the emergency powers. These allegations should be investigated as a matter of urgency.”
Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of advocacy and programmes, added: “The unjustified detention of anyone in the midst of a global pandemic is cruel and gravely irresponsible. Alternatives to detention should be considered for anyone who does not pose a threat to themselves or society.”