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Locked in and locked down – prison life in a pandemic

COVID impact on prisoners in 10 countries
New research on how 10 different prison systems reacted to the pandemic.

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Devastating Impact of Pandemic on Prisoners

The prisons research team at the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London has today (18 May 2021) published new research on measures taken to control the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, and their impact on prisoners’ health and wellbeing. The research covers a diverse group of 10 countries across five continents: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the USA (focusing on New York State), India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia (focusing on New South Wales). The research also includes first-hand accounts of how life in custody changed from March 2020.

Two reports are published today; Locked in and Locked down – prison life in a pandemic and  Keeping COVID out of prisons.

Keeping COVID out of prisons

This report examines the population management and infection control measures (excluding direct health interventions) taken by prison systems in the ten countries. The two main approaches were managing the prison population and infection control.

Prison population management

To varying extents since the outbreak of the pandemic, prison systems in the ten countries have sought to manage their populations and reduce overcrowding through deliberate measures to a)reduce entry into custody, whether at remand/pre-trial stage, point of sentence, or following violations of conditions of release; and b) increase the rate of release from custody, for example through early release schemes and amnesties.

For most of the ten countries for which recent prison population data are available, there appears to have been a decline, or accelerated decline, in prisoner numbers since early 2020. This appears to reflect some impact of the population management measures, as well as other factors related to the pandemic but unrelated to prisons policy – particularly, reduced offending and fewer prosecutions as a result of lockdowns. However, trends in prisoner numbers are not clear-cut; for example, the US presents a complex picture in that local jail populations began to increase, alongside a continuing decline in federal and state prison populations, from summer 2020.

Infection control measures

Prison authorities in all of the ten countries introduced measures to control the risk of the virus spreading within prisons. These included the suspension of, or restriction on, visits to prisons from outside, including by families and lawyers, by inspection bodies, and by NGOs and other community organizations which provide services in prisons; the restriction of movement by prisoners within prisons; and restrictions on prisoners leaving prisons: for example on temporary licence, to work or on home visits.

Prison life in a pandemic

In this report IPCR presents evidence of how life in custody changed as a result of the global health emergency, drawn from over 80 interviews with prisoners, ex-prisoners and their loved ones, conducted before and during the pandemic.

As the world outside struggled to come to terms with anxiety and social isolation in the midst of a major public health crisis, the deprivations experienced by prisoners and their families have been especially acute. Unable to observe social distancing or other basic safety measures in cramped, insanitary conditions, worrying about their own and their loved ones’ health and wellbeing, and with little or nothing to do, prisoners have experienced prolonged distress and isolation. For many, the impact will extend beyond the duration of the sentence.

When the pandemic emerged, most countries’ prison systems were running above their official capacity, after decades of rising prisoner numbers. From early March 2020, prisons across the world quickly locked down. With visits from the outside world largely suspended, prisoners were deprived of family contact, legal advice, visits from voluntary agencies and monitoring bodies. Rehabilitation, work, education and other activities largely ceased. Prisoners spent long periods locked up with little or no contact with others.

Double lockdown

Initially, the restrictions were met with protest, disorder and serious violence. Since then, with no end to the pandemic in sight, this protracted ‘double lockdown’ has continued to take a heavy toll on prisoners’ mental and physical health. These reports offer a timely opportunity to reassess policy and practice in the quest for effective and balanced responses to the particular challenges that COVID-19 poses for prison systems.

Restrictive regimes remain in place in many prisons, and have doubtless helped to contain infections and deaths. It is too early to judge how these gains weigh up against the associated social and psychological harms and lost rehabilitation outcomes.

What is already clear is that the health and social impacts of the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it will prove more severe in countries with overcrowded, under-resourced prisons. Limited physical space and infrastructure and inadequate staffing levels will have placed more constraints on (already stretched) provision of rehabilitation, education, work, visits and social interaction than would have been necessary otherwise.

There are indications that in many countries there has been some decline in prisoner numbers as a result of lockdowns, fewer arrests and court hearings, and measures to reduce the size of national prison populations. The researchers argue that this positive outcome will need to be be sustained in the longer term by means of deliberate decarceration policies.

They argue that reducing prison populations is the single most effective strategy to contain the public health risks presented by COVID-19 and other contagious diseases, without causing unnecessary collateral damage to the mental and physical health of prisoners, prison staff and their families.

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