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Coronavirus: why swathes of prisoners are being released in the world’s most punitive states

Prisons and contagious diseases are a deadly combination. Unhygienic and overcrowded, they easily become death traps. The 18th-century penal reformer, politician and philanthropist John Howard spent much of his life travelling to visit jails. He found, in particular in the UK, many disease-ridden prisons.

The dreaded jail fever, typhus (spread by lice, fleas and mites), was rampant and could decimate prison populations in a short space of time. In the end, it was Howard himself. He contracted typhus during a prison visit in present-day Ukraine and died there shortly after, in January 1790.

Fast forward to 2020. Prisons are perhaps becoming hotbeds of the pandemic, as closed environments with little privacy and usually very little chance of social distancing. In March there were reports of prison disturbances in Italy from inmates fearing they could be at increased risk of becoming infected.

Inmates protest inside Poggioreale prison in Naples on April 1. EPA-EFE/CIRO FUSCO

There were also riots and mass escapes in other countries including Brazil, where coronavirus was referred to by Renato Lima, director-president of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, as a “time bomb”. Lima highlighted overcrowding, a lack of a health facilities and the large number of older prisoners as specific risk factors. This was in early March and by then it was becoming clear that prisons globally were going to face a huge infection and contagion risk.

Yet many other prison systems seemed to almost view the situation as business as usual. In the Netherlands, measures were announced on March 13 which amounted to nothing more than a ban on visitors and on prisoners being granted day release. Other prisons systems undertook things even more gradually. For example, in Belgium visits were limited to one visitor per prisoner on March 12, with a complete ban on visitors being imposed the following week. The same lacklustre approach was also seen in the Czech Republic, Australia and Canada.

Such measures were never likely to keep the virus out for long. And once inside, more radical measures were going to be needed to avoid prison sentences becoming death sentences by stealth and exposing those who work in prisons to unacceptable risk. In contrast, something quite remarkable was starting to happen in countries that suffered a peak of the virus relatively early – and that are not exactly known for their luxurious prison conditions or their liberal approach to imprisonment.

Iran and Turkey

Iran has horrific prison conditions. It has a huge system with around 240,000 prisoners held in jails designed for about 150,000. Overcrowding is the norm. On March 3 it was announced that Iran was set to temporarily release some 54,000 prisoners, amounting to about 22% of the prison population.

This was a huge step in a country where imprisonment is heavily used. Subsequently the number of released prisoners was revised up to 85,000, or 35% of the original total number of prisoners. This came to include British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She received an ankle bracelet and was ordered to stay in the home of relatives. In all, it appears nearly 100,000 prisoners may have left Iranian prisons early.

A similar situation emerged in Turkey in late March with a proposal to free 45,000 prisoners temporarily. The bill became law on April 13. A separate bill is set to pass to free another 45,000 prisoners permanently. Turkey’s prisoner population in 2019 was around 286,000, many of whom were political prisoners. A reduction of 90,000 would mean a reduction of 31%. This is massive but at the same time it must be noted that political prisoners would not be eligible for release. It highlights the intense political nature of imprisonment in a country where conditions historically are inhumane and overcrowded.

On a smaller, but still significant scale, in Ethiopia 4,011 prisoners were pardoned and released on March 13. Some 10,000 have been released from prisons in Afghanistan, whereas prisoner releases, albeit on a much smaller scale, occurred across the United States, in states like California. Other countries following this early release plan include India, Indonesia and Morroco.

UK prisons

The UK’s approach has been decidedly mixed. The Prison Inspectorate announced that it was ceasing inspections on March 17 and by the end of the month it was announced that pregnant women prisoners would be up for early release. There is news of prisoners self-isolating and of increasing the number of prisoners in single cells. At the same time, due to inactivity in criminal courts the flow of new prisoners has been reduced. The prison is also slowly going down through “normal” release processes. So, slowly but surely, almost by stealth, the prison rate is reducing in the UK.

HMP Pentonville, London, where two staff members were reported to have died after suffering COVID-19 symptoms. Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

Initially, the intention was to have some 4,000 prisoners leave prison early (which is approaching one in 20). Yet the reality is more messy than that, with issues over the availability of electronic tags, the need for risk assessments and community supervision arrangements. It was mentioned in the Commons Justice Committee that no more than 18 prisoners had been released under these plans. That is a pitiful number that will do nothing to avert a major health emergency in UK prisons, which has already seen two prison officers die after getting COVID-19 symptoms. This process now seems to have been halted and there is a lack of clarity around the whole issue.

The UK’s next move runs counter to global trends: rather than upscaling release, the system is in fact set to increase capacity. It has been reported that perhaps as many as 2,000 makeshift cells are being created to facilitate social distancing in prisons. In doing so, the UK’s approach is to more doggedly resist mass release than some of the world’s most punitive states.

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