Lately we often hear that Covid-19 changed the agenda in all systems, the lifestyle of individuals and their daily routine, and established the standards to follow which were unnecessary to consider in the past. Also, the mass media informs us that society needs to learn to live along with COVID-19 because it will become an integral part of our daily lives, or more precisely, became as such since the day its first spread.
Individuals have experienced what it means to be isolated from the rest of society, what it means to be unable to do what you want and how you want it. The call to keep the distance has become part of daily life. But at the same time, the least attention is paid to the fact that there are people who, even though they are aware of the strict requirements on keeping the distance and hygiene, still cannot comply. Also, they are aware of the need for ventilation and fresh air, have information about testing and symptoms, but being in closed institutions prevents their access to the given conditions and services. This time, with the short analysis the author will focus on those who are in detention, in establishments that are mostly overcrowded, in cells where natural ventilation may not be even the subject of discussion, because the existing windows won’t allow this, etc. The list can go on. However, society is often less bothered by this, because, as a rule, “it does not concern them.”
When it comes to the negative consequences of the spread of COVID-19 relative to the penitentiary system, in addition to people who are deprived of their liberty, attention should be given to staff standing on guard over public safety and are included in the risk group, like doctors. They (in many countries where the government has introduced a special work regime) have to live in prisons for months in conditions where often there are no normal means of maintaining basic hygiene and sleep.
For these and many other reasons both sides – as the detainee and staff – at this time are under psychological pressure, although neither can change anything independently, as staff, like detainees, obey the decision of the administration.
Experts, practitioners, and theorists offer numerous recommendations to the penitentiary system, as to how to act in the context of the spread of COVID-19, and how to combat its consequences. However, the recommendations are not based on long-term experience and knowledge and, therefore, cannot be taken as final unquestionable advice. Implementing practices, including successful ones, is happening today, along with other concomitant events.
In the publication “The public health case for criminal justice reform,” the authors cite two reasons which determine the need for swift action: First, it is to protect vulnerable groups, which will improve outcomes, in particular, it will reduce healthcare overload, protect prison staff from disease, and prevent the spread of disease. The paper provides five examples of reducing the spread of the virus in the penitentiary system. The authors point out that these are the first steps for the prison administration to take today and necessarily to change tomorrow.
- Release medically fragile and older detainees. This includes people with chronic illness and complex medical needs who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care. Releasing these vulnerable groups will reduce the need to provide complex medical care. The author cites the example of Iran when the government decided to release a quarter of the total prison population in connection with the spread of the virus.
- The next issue that is less known in the practice of post-Soviet countries is stopping charging medical co-pays in prison. However, it is important to note here that the author emphasizes timely medical care and notes that the inadmissibility of timely and appropriate medical care in the context of COVID-19 means promoting the spread of the virus across a large number of people in a very confined space.
- Reducing the number of detainees in prisons. In particular, reclassifying those misdemeanor offenders that have not been sentenced to imprisonment and do not threaten public safety. Using non-custodial sanctions instead of arrests for all low-risk crimes.
- Reduce parole and probation meetings.
- Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations.
The paper also discusses the ineffective methods used in various countries and notes that many prisons, instead of focusing on reducing the harm that can be done to detainees, their employees, and the public, are still trying to prevent the virus from spreading to its facilities. The focus is on the dependence of these systems on particularly high-security measures, and there is no combination of security measures and restrictions, such as: prohibiting meetings with family members, screening for fever of incoming staff, or locking the entire special contingent in cells that will reduce the spread of COVID-19 over the facility for a longer time. It is also emphasized that as soon as the virus enters the facility, the density and filthy conditions will allow the virus to spread rapidly among both inmates and staff, and will accelerate its spread to nearby populations.
Often, the public has a question: Why should penitentiary institutions be the center of attention and why are people in prison more vulnerable to COVID-19? This question can be answered by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, which notes that people in prisons and other places of detention live in confined spaces and are likely to be close to each other, which we all agree is a favorable condition for the spread of the disease. The WHO also explains that detainees’ health conditions are worse than those of the rest of the population because they consume tobacco, the hygiene is not adequately maintained, and they have weak immunity to stress, poor nutrition, or various diseases. All these factors make a person in prison more vulnerable to infections.For example, it is possible to cite an explanation of the Human Rights Law Centre regarding the results of COVID-19. The consequences of COVID-19 in Australian prisons will devastate, as people in prison will face a higher risk of injury or death if they become infected. Over one-third of people who end up in prison have chronic diseases such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and disability. Also, according to the organization, the risk, and likelihood of harm increase because prisons are overcrowded and filthy, access to medical services is limited, and, in general, there are poor conditions. The organization also draws attention to the issue of isolation and notes that, according to the existing experience, solitary confinement in prisons will be used in response to the public health crisis. But it will not be an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, as it won’t stop the daily influx of detainees and movement of staff, them entering and leaving the prison.
Despite various arguments that in the most countries around the world there are high-risk establishments in the penitentiary systems in terms of COVID-19 spread, this paper does not discuss the problems of the spread of the virus, but it aims to discuss the consequences of entering of COVID-19 in prisons or those restrictions that many countries around the world have imposed in response.
Today, the world is calculating the damage COVID-19 caused to the economies, counting the number of people infected, recovered, and deceased. However, it is not yet clear what of psychological and social damage has been inflicted to the same society, including those people who, it can be said, are in double limited conditions: detainees and prison staff. The question arises: what negative impact can COVID-19 and its associated limitations have on the penitentiary system?
For example, let’s look through the statistics of some European countries (as of May 12) and observe whether the restrictions prevented the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. We will see that it did not stop. There is an equal number of staff and detainees within infected people.
||The total number of positive cases
||From here detainees
||From here Staff
Considering the data on cases in prisons, first, those restrictions need to be listed that states imposed to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. In particular, restrictions concerning:
- Family visits (Both short-term and long-term, according to systemic standards of the states);
- Any movement, including the transfer of convicted persons to the places of execution of the sentence;
- Participation in court proceedings;
- Receiving parcels (in some countries);
- Participation in training and rehabilitation programmes has been suspended and restricted;
- Participation of the detainees in the employment and rehabilitation programmes has been suspended;
- Prohibition of access to walking areas, etc.
What psychological and social issues could have been caused by the restrictions imposed on the prevention of coronavirus? One of the French publications writes that the restrictions will cause severe psychological impact to the detainees who were deprived of the right to meet with their families at the beginning of the crisis – their only connection to the outside world.
It should not be news to anyone that many detainees have already lost contact with their families or it is very weakened. Thus, a long-term restriction on these remaining minimum contacts is a significant risk these ties to be completely broken, which, both during and after the release, will severely burden the person and his/her reintegration into society.
It cannot be ruled out that some limitations, at some point, can be said to be vital for people, especially those who, as mentioned above, are at one of the highest risks. Here, however, it is important to discuss how the penitentiary system should maintain a balance between preventing infection and as much as possible maintaining a psychologically and socially healthy environment for the detainee. There are also answers to this question, the combined introduction of which will lead the penitentiary system to a relatively reduced result.
Comments on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights interprets: “Although legitimate preventive measures are needed in prison against the COVID-19 pandemic, the government must ensure that human rights are protected.” In this paper, the author also explains which rights are to be considered as inviolable, as such: the preventive measures, for instance, procedural guarantees that protect a person’s freedom, right to life, the prohibition of torture, as well as the right to take proceedings before a court that may decide on the arrest of a person cannot be used as any kind of a preventative measure.
To the following instructions can be added the recommendations interpreted in the briefing note of the International Organization PRI, as Isolation or quarantine measures used in the places of detention must be proportionate, authorized in law, defined in time, and subject to reconsideration. The use of such measures should not result in de facto solitary confinement. Quarantine should be time-limited and should only be imposed if no alternative protective measure can be taken by the prison management to prevent or respond to the spread of the infection.
Here, the author refers to several key components, the assessment of which, as of today, when the infection is still spreading and the pandemic cannot be considered resolved, does not occur. Such assessment may take place further when the experts will have time and/or will be allowed to enter the territory of penitentiary institutions and will have the opportunity to directly receive information from the people subjected to those restrictions. To reduce the accompanying and negative consequences of the established restrictions, the most important components are: legitimacy and proportionality. It is unfortunate, as of today, no one has created the criteria for assessing such legitimacy or proportionality. Thus, in all countries, the penitentiary administration made the decision that was necessary according to their considerations. Such restrictions include the long-term restriction of meeting with the family, but no one has identified the psychological and social consequences caused by this, working for the undefined period under a special regime when no one has studied the harm to these people’s families and their private lives and/or health, etc.
The OHCHR and WHO guidelines consider the rights of staff in places of detention. Why is the protection of these rights, in this context, vital? There are several reasons for this: First, physically and psychologically depressed and exhausted staff cannot be effective for the functioning of the system. There is a high probability that they may develop aggression towards detainees or even their colleagues or management, which is especially acute during this isolation when people are in a stressful situation because of, so to speak, “double imprisonment”. These guidelines, in terms of managing such emergencies, explain that “Senior management should be proactive in planning the work of members of staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, share the emergency preparedness plan, and provide support for relatives of members of staff carrying out critical functions. Specific training should be provided to all staff to increase knowledge, skills, and behaviours related to necessary healthcare and hygiene provisions.”
As for the psychological consequences of restrictions, attention should be paid to the opinion of psychologists that “persons in detention, especially those who have been isolated or quarantined, may be frightened, nervous, or confused. Thus, stress-related disorders or pre-existing mental health issues can be exacerbated.” Here, they focus on how the system should operate that all people who previously have had the above issues to be offered psychiatric and psychological assistance (including medical treatment), in extreme cases, by phone or video call. People who are particularly at risk for mental illness should be identified, their condition should be assessed immediately, and all necessary assistance should be offered.
What can be done to reduce the stress caused by COVID-19 and its negative consequences? A somewhat obvious answer to this question is given by a study conducted by the psychologists, where the authors give a general explanation, although its relevance is evident to both: individuals deprived of their liberty and the staff. In particular, according to the study:
- Restrictions should be as time-limited as possible because long-term quarantine conditions can have worsened psychological consequences. For example, it should not surprise us that, according to respondents, the stress will be maintained at a high level so long as the quarantine will be.
- Provide people with as much information as possible. People in isolation are afraid of getting infected or not to infect others. Also, they exaggerate any physical symptoms they may have had during the quarantine.
- People in quarantine should be provided with adequate means to satisfy all the necessary needs.
- It is important to reduce boredom and improve relationships. Boredom and isolation cause stress. People in isolation need to be informed about how to deal with boredom, what they can do in given situation; Advise on stress management.
The current article is the author’s first attempt to present to the public the grave consequences that can be inflicted on individuals at the places of detention, personnel, and, consequently, the society in general, as a large part of society comprises family members of these people. The article emphasizes that the restrictions imposed by the penitentiary system administrations without prior planning and in-depth analysis could put a permanent mark on individuals and staff in the penitentiary system, who work round the clock to ensure public safety.
The analysis allows for a summary that is simple and understandable for any person involved in the penitentiary system, and based on which the following recommendations can be formulated:
- A balance must be secured between prevention measures and the protection of human rights;
- Legitimacy and proportionality must be determined between the constraints used and the urgency;
- The criteria for assessing such legitimacy or proportionality should be established;
- The use of restrictions must be defined in time, which will be a time-limited and uttermost measure;
- A plan should be developed and implemented to provide systematic information to both detainees and staff;
- Continuous distance learning should be conducted to train staff in a given situation;
- Effective delivery of medical, psychological, and, if necessary, mental assistance and distribution of the necessary means of protection should be provided timely;
- Proper and timely planning of the given restrictions and measures should be conducted and the systematic analysis and re-sorting of the measures used should be taken.
This is a small list of recommendations that the author gives to penitentiary systems to reduce the damage caused by the restrictions.
- Wagner P., (Peter Wagner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative) and Widra E., Need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, March 6, 2020, <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/03/06/pandemic/> [23.05.2020].
- Brooks S., K., PhDa, Webster R., K., PhDa, Smith L. E., PhDa, Woodland L, MSca, Wessely S., Prof, FMedScia, Greenberg N., Prof, FRCPsycha and Rubin G. J., PhDa, The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence, Published online 2020 Feb 26.
- Widra E. and Wagner P., How prepared are state prison systems for a viral pandemic? April 10, 2020, <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/04/10/prepared/> [23.05.2020].
- FAQ: Prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention, < http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-determinants/prisons-and-health/focus-areas/prevention-and-control-of-covid-19-in-prisons-and-other-places-of-detention/faq-prevention-and-control-of-covid-19-in-prisons-and-other-places-of-detention> [23.05.2020].
- Human rights law center, Explainer: Prisons and COVID-19, <https://www.hrlc.org.au/prisons-and-covid19> [23.05.2020].
- Dodman B. article: As France releases thousands, can Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding? <https://www.france24.com/en/20200427-as-france-releases-thousands-can-covid-19-end-chronic-prison-overcrowding> [23.05.2020].
- Article 9 of the ICCPR and General Comment No.35.
- Briefing Note, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison, p 8, 16 March 2020, Penal Reform International, <https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/FINAL-Briefing-Coronavirus.pdf> [23.05.2020].
- OHCHR and WHO, Interim Guidance, COVID-19: Focus on Persons Deprived of Their Liberty, March 2020, 2, <https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/2020-03/IASC%20Interim%20Guidance%20on%20COVID-19%20-%20Focus%20on%20Persons%20Deprived%20of%20Their%20Liberty.pdf> [23.05.2020]
 Wagner P., (Peter Wagner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative) and Widra E., Need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, March 6, 2020, < https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/03/06/pandemic//> [23.05.2020].
 Here, we are talking about a practice where the costs of treatment are partially financed by the penitentiary system, and the coverage of the other part is the obligation of the prisoner.
 Reducing meetings means decreasing the physical involvement and participation in prisoners in the meetings, rather than stopping or reducing the review process.
 Human rights law center, Explainer: Prisons and COVID-19,
 Article 9 of the ICCPR and General Comment No.35.
 Briefing Note, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison, p 8, 16 March 2020, Penal Reform International,
 Brooks S., K., PhDa, Webster R., K., PhDa, Smith L. E., PhDa, Woodland L, MSca, Wessely S., Prof, FMedScia, Greenberg N., Prof, FRCPsycha and Rubin G. J., PhDa, The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence, Published online 2020 Feb 26.