Why are prisons at high risk of mass outbreaks of COVID-19?
People in prison and prison staff are acutely vulnerable to COVID-19, not least because of the difficulties of containing the virus in often overcrowded settings with little fresh air, poor sanitary conditions and limited access to healthcare.
Years of punitive sentencing have resulted in severe overcrowding, with prisons in over 124 countries exceeding the maximum occupancy rate, 23 of which containing prisons at over 200% capacity. These conditions make it near impossible to maintain social distancing guidelines.
The morality rate for people in custody is already as much as 50% higher than for people in the general population. Even before COVID-19, the lives of people in prison were at greater risk.
COVID-19 significantly escalates this risk.
Hygiene standards in prisons are commonly much lower than those found in the community. A global lack of funding for criminal justice systems has also resulted in low healthcare provision, poor conditions and low levels of well-trained staff. These conditions have made prisons ticking time bombs waiting for COVID-19 to light the fuse.
People in prison are also likely to come from marginalised backgrounds where they may have been exposed to transmissible diseases and inadequate nutrition as well as lack good quality health services, increasing their vulnerability to the virus.
COVID-19 has shed light on the poor healthcare in places of detention and the lack of preparedness to manage disasters in too many countries. People detained in overcrowded places are at high risk of transmissible disease. This has fuelled calls from PRI and the human rights community at large for emergency releases and a long-term decrease in the global prison population.
Learn more about PRI’s work combating COVID-19 in places of detention here and find resources to support governments and criminal justice practitioners to reduce the risk of mass outbreaks in prisons here.