Almost four thousand prisoners have died as a result of the pandemic and more than half a million have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a global report released today which argues ‘millions’ have suffered because of prison lockdowns. The figures, which include more than 118 deaths in England and Wales, identifies human rights violations and suffering caused by severe restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic.
The prevention of COVID-19 outbreaks in many prisons have come at a cost to human rights, argues the Penal Reform International (PRI), with many regimes lacking ‘sufficient legal basis and measures to mitigate the impact of isolation’. Millions have suffered as a result of the preventative measures, the report continues, incurring a huge cost to the mental health and human rights of prisoners in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
The new report, Global Prison Trends 2021, reckons that there are 11 million people in prison worldwide and 118 countries operate above their official prison capacity, ‘including 11 countries with occupancy levels higher than 250%’. ‘Many prison populations, including 12 in Europe, have in fact risen in recent months as a result of work to clear court backlogs,’ says the PRI. ‘… At least 532,100 people in prison are reported to have contracted COVID-19, resulting in over 3,900 deaths.’ The group adds that the numbers will ‘be much higher, due to data collection and transparency issues’.
PRI continue: ‘Prison staff have also suffered, with cases among staff reported in at least 48 countries, and prison staff accounting for up to 88% of COVID-19 cases in some prison systems.’ According to the study, 13 countries have prioritised prisons in their vaccination strategies.
The group reports that solitary confinement, and measures to isolate or confine groups, have been in place for months and are often undertaken without medical assessment or regular review. Under international standards, solitary confinement is prohibited for periods over 15 consecutive days.
Early release schemes to halt the rise in prison populations ‘did not go far enough’, according to the report. Many prison populations rose as a result of imprisonment for COVID-19 regulation breaches which the group called ‘effectively criminalising poverty’. ‘Despite obvious benefits of COVID-19 release measures, far fewer people than needed to prevent transmission in prisons were released,’ the report continues.
‘We cannot forget people in prison during times of crisis,’ said Olivia Rope, the charity’s executive director. ‘The impact of overcrowding and pre-existing failures to provide the most basic necessities and healthcare in prisons have been exacerbated by the pandemic, making prison sentences a risk to life in some places. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is compounded by the ongoing mental health crisis in prisons, making it all the more essential to ensure continued access to support networks, critical rehabilitation programmes and mental health services.’