The number and proportion of foreign nationals in prison and serving probation varies greatly between regions and countries. In the second blog of our series examining trends identified in Global Prison Trends 2021, Petra Pavlas considers the particular impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on foreign nationals in prison and probation as well as its impact on those released from prison during this time in Europe, where foreign nationals make up almost a quarter of national prison populations.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many measures, modifications, and changes have been made, not only in our daily lives, but also in an area that is usually not in the consciousness of most people: prisons. To understand the challenges that most prison services and people in prison have had to face, this blog aims to provide an overview of the Confederation of European Probation & EuroPris Foreign Nationals in Prison and Probation (FNPP) Expert Group’s findings on COVID-19 measures in prisons and their consequences.
The CEP & EuroPris FNPP Expert Group comprises representatives of organizations working with their nationals imprisoned abroad, universities, as well as experts nominated from EuroPris and CEP members. The aims of this work are wide and cover both the objectives of organizations, statutory and voluntary, working with their own nationals imprisoned and on community sanctions abroad, as well as foreign nationals of other countries, imprisoned or on community sanctions in their country.
The additional needs of foreign people in prison… have become more evident than ever
As with most people, 2020 was a challenging year for the FNPP Group. Despite work challenges and the extra demands on members of the group due to COVID-19, 2020 proved to be very productive and gave insight into how their service or organization was coping in these challenging times and what they were doing to ensure that foreign nationals in prison were not further disadvantaged. The additional needs of foreign people in prison, beyond those facing all groups in prison, have become more evident than ever. A special issue of the fall 2020 EuroPris newsletter featured foreign nationals in prison and those serving sentences in the community. See the contributions here.
Expert Group members provided reports, studies, and summaries on the impact of COVID-19 and an Expert Group e-learning module, “Managing Foreign National Prisoners” was developed in collaboration with the Council of Europe’s HELP program continues to provide a useful and engaging training program for prison staff. It was useful particularly during the pandemic as staff training options have been limited.
Foreign nationals in prison during COVID-19
Foreign nationals in prison, as a group of people with existing additional needs, found their situation exacerbated during the pandemic and prisons found it more challenging to meet these needs and protect their rights.
From the outset of the pandemic suddenly foreigners in detention faced very special challenges as this was perceived by the group members all over Europe. As foreign nationals (FNs) often do not speak the local language, it was important for prison staff to maintain good communication, explaining the measures that had been taken to stem the spread of the virus, and to reassure them to alleviate anxieties about experiencing the pandemic in conditions of detention. Many foreign nationals do not have families or friends nearby, which has a particular impact in the many countries around the world where people rely on their support network to bring food, medicine, or money during prison visits.
During the height of the pandemic there were no family visits, large events, prison holidays, group sports or activities in gyms. There were restrictions on unguarded movement outside the prison, on receiving packages, visits to libraries or the hairdresser, and on educational or resocialisation programmes, and so on. It was also observed in many prisons that work programmes were cancelled. In the space of a day, visits from outside institutions and organizations in almost all prisons were completely discontinued or reduced. In some cases, there was no consular access to people in prison and vital legal counselling for FNs were also cancelled. As family visits and visits from outside organisations were banned, international organisations could not visit clients abroad – and only gradually were other ways of communicating found, such as Skype and video-calls – this meant a rapid rethink for how to implement support for people in rapidly deteriorating conditions was necessary. Only over time was it possible to allow the use of video conferencing for families abroad to speak to their loved ones in prison, but these facilities have not been available in all countries.
the pandemic has certainly contributed to a slowdown in the implementation of administrative procedures, as well as extraditions
Even though access to prisons has since improved for professionals, visits by relatives have remained limited. As far as foreign nationals are concerned, the pandemic has certainly contributed to a slowdown in the implementation of administrative procedures, as well as extraditions. The concrete measures taken in the different member states during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis can be viewed at the following links: EuroPris: Promoting Professional Prison Practice | » 050121: Knowledge Management System and EuroPris: Promoting Professional Prison Practice | » COVID-19.
The members of the CEP Expert group noted in the joint exchange that not only the Prison Service, but also the probation service has had to deal with restrictions on office visits for individuals serving probation, to the extent that personal contact with clients has been virtually made impossible with the stricter COVID measures taken all over Europe. For the most part, only the use of telephone and video conferences for reporting has been possible. Much of the probation service has been reduced to so-called ‘door-stopping’. That is, where officers go to the client’s home and call them from outside the house while the client is on the phone from the window – to have at least some personal contact.
Since the beginning of the pandemic when almost all probation offices closed and officers were working from home providing guidance through video and telephone communications, it has emerged that it is particularly important to have interpreters join the calls, though this has its own challenges. For the most part however, there are no special programmes or provisions for foreign nationals on probation and, what’s more, many clients on probation who were in temporary employment have lost their jobs, due to the tense economic situation caused by the pandemic, leading to difficult and stressful situations.
It took a tremendous amount of effort and creativity on the part of each prison service to get grants to individuals in prison, who of course were characterized by varying levels of restriction and readiness to make it happen depending on the country.
the frequency of telephone calls… has been expanded, which of course had an impact on the facilitation of contact for families of foreign nationals
Specifically, the majority of Expert Group members reported that for example stamps were now made freely available so everyone detained could exchange letters and correspondence. In the same way, in most prisons the frequency of telephone calls for people in detention has been expanded, which of course had an impact on the facilitation of contact for families of foreign nationals. In many countries, new digital communication and information platforms have been built over time, making communication with the outside world quicker, easier and more casual and even information sheets on hygiene measures concerning COVID-19 were also made available in various languages. Furthermore, guidance in different languages and with descriptive icons, has been made available in some prisons to inform FNPs, for example, on how to make video calls. Until today, video calls are mostly free to use as they improve the atmosphere and reduce tensions in prisons.
In general, it has been observed that the number of FNPs in European prisons decreased from as well as a reduction in the number of property crimes during the COVID-19 period.
In this context EuroPris and CEP, in collaboration with the SPACE research team at the University of Lausanne, hosted a webinar to discuss the available statistics on foreign offenders, what they tell us and how they might be useful for policy and practice development. This webinar looked at what is available for comparative study and whether it may contribute to the policy and practice of those responsible in prison, probation and other agencies working with this group.
Foreign nationals leaving prison during COVID-19
One very special challenge that affected foreign nationals in prisons across Europe during the pandemic has been around leaving prison on early release or in the case of voluntary return after they have served their sentence. In concrete terms, voluntary return of foreign nationals means on the one hand voluntary return in the strict sense, if there are no community links or family members in the executing state and they need assistance in returning to their home country. On the other hand, to avoid detention pending deportation in the event of the imposition of an entry ban or when asylum applications (application for international protection) were rejected so they are obliged to return in a legally binding manner. This has been undertaken in collaboration with different organisations (e.g. International Organisation of Migration, Prisoners Abroad, Caritas International, etc.) that provide support in voluntary return preventing FNs from having to stay in deportation centres beforehand as this is an issue of integration of released FNPs without community links. Resettlement and finding emergency accommodation was very difficult for FNs released from prison and who returned to their home countries as many places were closed and other services were unavailable due to the lockdown in COVID time.
What makes things more difficult for FNs being released in times like these are new travel restrictions, additional PCR-tests and quarantine regulations (overland or by air) due to COVID-19 regulations. Even if the prison system will pay for one PCR-test in cases mentioned above, if a second test is needed the individual has to pay for it her-/himself. As for the implementation of prison transfers under the Council Framework Decision 909 (FD 909) and the Council of Europe Treaty Series (No.112, No.167), this was not working that well before COVID-19 and has been used even less since then. As most international flights were cancelled and because PCR-testing before entering most of the countries must be provided, it was (and is) nearly impossible to implement this EU Framework Decision during COVID restrictions.
the impact on the mental health of foreign nationals in prison has been particularly significant
In addition to highlighting the special needs of FNs in detention, the pandemic in any case has raised awareness of the issue in prison systems and had an impact on the justice system as a whole. After the justice system was pushed to its limits by the pandemic, old systems and procedures had to be completely rethought forcing some prison systems to adopt new IT systems and technologies as mentioned. The increased and innovative use of the internet and other communication opportunities in the place of prison visits has helped – although it is important to ensure these are used to supplement, and not replace, in-person visits which are so important for the mental health and rehabilitation of people in prison. Nevertheless, the impact on the mental health of foreign nationals in prison has been particularly significant due to the greater isolation, home concerns, impoverished regimes and delays in returning or being returned home from abroad that have been faced by this group. The impact of Covid-19 and prison responses to the management of foreign national prisoners as a group under exceptional operational pressures, their effectiveness and whether they should remain in place, will be an important focus of the group’s future work plan.
It will be seen what positive reforms remain in place in the future and how the small silver linings of the pandemic can be used to ensure the rights of foreign nationals imprisoned abroad in the longer term.
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