COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Criminal justice reform in the US: ‘So much to be done… but moving in the right direction’

Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, discusses Barack Obama’s recent article in the Harvard Law Review.

CopyRight : F. van den Bergh

CopyRight : F. van den Bergh

In an article published in the closing weeks of his second term, President Barack Obama has published detailed reflections on his criminal justice reform achievements and the challenges still to be met. To highlight America’s shockingly high prisoner numbers, Obama uses World Prison Brief data published and compiled by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck (ICPR). His article also refers to a recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, which contained several references to ICPR’s World Prison Population List 2016.

In ‘The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform’ (Commentary, Harvard Law Review, 5 January 2017: 130 Harv L Rev 811), Barack Obama charts a lifetime commitment to criminal justice reform, from his early work as a community organizer through to promoting legislative reform to some of the sentencing laws underpinning America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration. Pointing to the capacity of criminal justice to exacerbate inequality and social divisions, Obama argues that by asking criminal justice to solve problems it cannot solve, we risk undermining public trust in law and jeopardising public safety.

The scale of the problem

The first sitting president to set foot inside a federal prison, Obama visited El Reno, Oklahoma in 2015, speaking with inmates about their personal journeys to incarceration. He describes being struck by the way the justice system traps young people in an endless cycle of marginalisation and punishment – including some who had ‘made mistakes no worse than my own’. Though proud to be the first president in decades to leave a federal prison population smaller than it was when he entered office, Obama stresses the scale of the problem still to be tackled. 2.2 million of America’s citizens are imprisoned today – compared to less than half a million in 1980. US citizens now bear the burden of a prison system costing US$ 80 billion a year. With crime now close to historic lows, Obama sees this as a vital opportunity to press on with reform.

Obama’s key milestones

Legislation to reduce overlong sentences was signed in 2010 (Fair Sentencing Act). This aimed at ending disparity in sentences for drug crime, which was disproportionately affecting African Americans. The ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative led to changes in federal charging policy and practice, designed to stop prosecutors having to bring charges that would result in the longest possible custodial terms.

Up to 100,000 of America’s prison inmates are held in solitary confinement, around a quarter of them on a long-term basis. Obama directed a reduction in the use of solitary confinement, introducing guiding principles for its use in federal prisons, which could also serve as a model for change in state and local institutions. The Department of Justice recently directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private for-profit prisons. These have been shown to produce worse conditions for inmates, while creating no meaningful cost savings.

Prison reforms have placed a new emphasis on education and rehabilitation, recognising the importance of investing properly in preparing people to return to society and get their lives back on track. Around three hundred companies have signed a pledge to ‘ban the box’, to ensure people with criminal records – a staggering one in three Americans – have a fair chance at employment.

Although thwarted by conservative Republicans in many other areas of reform, Obama succeeded in building a strong political consensus for much of his justice reform agenda. Even traditionally ‘red states’ like Texas managed to make lasting changes, reducing prison sentence lengths as part of ‘justice reinvestment’ schemes to plough savings made from shorter custodial terms back into substance abuse and family support programmes.

The road ahead

There was a limit, however, to the extent of Republican support that Obama’s administration could secure for sentencing reform; and more recent reform initiatives have been blocked or shelved. These proposals would have seen mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offences cut (Smarter Sentencing Act 2014 and subsequent more limited versions of it). In calling on the next administration not to shirk the task of further reform, Obama highlights the degree to which punitive drug sentencing policies have disproportionately impacted poorer communities and those struggling with racial inequality and drug dependency.

Calling for America’s ‘tragic opioid epidemic’ to be re-characterised as a public health problem rather than one requiring a criminal justice response, the President notes that four out of every five first-time heroin users in the USA transitioned from misuse of prescription drugs. Another key challenge Obama identifies is to confront the racial bias in the policies of harsher law enforcement and longer prison sentences still seen in America today. For example, while levels of drug use do not vary significantly by race or ethnicity, African American arrest and conviction rates for drug crimes are significantly higher.

Understanding and reducing the resort to imprisonment

ICPR is engaged in a new international research project looking at trends and patterns of imprisonment in the USA and nine other contrasting jurisdictions across all five continents. The project asks what transferable lessons for reducing resort to imprisonment can be learnt from the ten jurisdictions’ differing approaches to, and experiences of, criminal justice. America’s recent history surely offers lessons too important to ignore.

Further information:

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , ,