Health and Healthcare Systems

Outbreak or breakout? How to protect prison populations from COVID-19

An inmate is pictured as members of Honduran Army distribute protective face masks and gel to inmates at Tamara prison as part of the government measures to stop the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2HSF9KN2NF

Image: REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Significant parts of many prison populations have been released as an emergency response to the pandemic.
  • Some argue that too many prisoners are still being exposed to infection in overcrowded facilities.

This past March, the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio was estimated to be at 153% of its official capacity. One month later, roughly 80% of the American prison’s population – more than 2,000 inmates – tested positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic has amplified the hazards of cramped conditions in prisons around the world, and raised objections to cruelly exposing large, concentrated groups of people to the virus.

One response to this health threat has been to release prisoners – some into home detention, while others deemed low risk, or with minimal time remaining on their sentences, are fully liberated.

More than 61,000 prisoners in India have been released, including nearly 3,600 in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, according to one estimate. In Iran, of the tens of thousands of prisoners released temporarily in March as an emergency measure, many received full pardons. And a report published last week suggested that nearly 130,000 prisoners had been released in European countries.

Prisoner releases have stirred disagreement between those who see them as a “slap in the face” to victims of their crimes, and those who say still-overcrowded facilities must be emptied more quickly for humanitarian reasons.

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Many prison populations are relatively old and afflicted with the sort of underlying health conditions that make people especially vulnerable to the pandemic. In California, one analysis found that nearly 18,000 people in the state’s prisons were 55 or older.

However, prisoner releases in California and elsewhere have led to legal clashes and claims that dangerous criminals are being unleashed on the public. Concerns have also been raised about abruptly pushing thousands of ill-equipped people into troubled job markets, often without adequate housing.

Turkey has undertaken one of the most dramatic release efforts, reducing its prison population by roughly a third in the process. Legislators in the country passed a law this past April allowing for the release of about 100,000 inmates, though Amnesty International has argued that thousands still remain behind bars following unfair trials and convictions under overly broad anti-terrorism laws.

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In Ohio, home to the Marion Correctional Institution, hundreds of prisoners have been released – though critics say it has not been enough. As the US and other countries face a surge in coronavirus cases, their prisons remain home to some of the most exposed populations.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • At the California State Prison at San Quentin – one of the main epicentres of the 1918 influenza pandemic – history is repeating itself, according to this report. (Mother Jones)
  • Research on the experiences of transgender and non-binary prisoners in England and Wales has continued during the pandemic, and reflects lives spent inside a cell 23 hours per day and fatalistic attitudes, according to this analysis. (The Conversation)
  • “I have become obsessed with staying alive,” an inmate at a California prison wrote this past May as the number of confirmed active cases of COVID-19 in the crowded facility reached 452, according to this report. (STAT)
  • Two-thirds of Nigeria’s inmates have yet to go on trial, according to this report, and they’re being exposed to significant coronavirus-related risk in crowded prisons. (New Internationalist)
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to push for reforms to reduce prison populations and to move to a more humane, evidence-based healthcare system for those in the US criminal justice system, according to this analysis. (LSE)
  • In order to add value to black communities in the US, the police and prison systems must be defunded, according to the argument made in this analysis. (Brookings Institution)
  • In the UK, there’s a legal obligation to protect prisoners from death or serious harm, this analysis argues – and decisions about prisoner release should be based not on length of sentence, but on a prisoner’s individual vulnerabilities like underlying health conditions. (LSE)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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