The pandemic brought severe and often long periods of restrictions on contact with the outside world for people in prison.
Lack of contact has had a wide range of impact on the rights of persons detained from access to legal representation and to access to basic necessities often delivered by family and support networks.
In Bolivia, while lawyers’ visits remained permissible, access to adequate food and medicine became a problem as family members were relied on for such provisions. In Guatemala and Estonia, there were restrictions imposed on packages received by prisons. This was a common problem reported in many places where blanket bans remained in force for months. In Argentina, where prior to the pandemic up to 85 per cent of people in prison relied on families for basics like food and clothes, and 35 per cent for medicines, a blanket ban on visitation was imposed for seven months from March 2020. Analysis from Southern and Eastern Africa showed that in at least 10 countries prisons blocked access to external visitors (in another 11 countries this could not be confirmed).
Other systems took different approaches to retain support from outside prisons, like in Uganda where packages for family or friends could be delivered through the prison gate. In Europe, too, some countries that permit the receipt of food parcels increased their limits on quantity and frequency and/or raised their allowances to buy food from the prison shop.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many prisons have implemented for the first time or expanded their use of video calling equipment. This has been used to replace or supplement in-person visits in many prisons across Europe and around the world, including in Kazakhstan, Kenya, Australia, Thailand and Indonesia. There have been significant variances between countries and prisons in terms of the speed of the rollout, whether it is available in all prisons, at cost to the detainee or not, and whether its use is limited in frequency and length of calls. Virtual platforms have also been used by many prison oversight bodies and monitoring bodies as an alternative way to implement their mandate where access to prisons was restricted (see Detention monitoring in a global pandemic).
Over a year on from the start of the pandemic, there are many prison systems which retain restrictions or blanket bans on visits. In England, prison visits for family and friends remain suspended as of March 2021, except on exceptional compassionate grounds which need to be agreed in advance with the prison.
Limits on access to legal representatives for detainees were reported globally. International actors pointed to the need for states to categorise justice services as an ‘essential service’ to continue operating during the pandemic. Many states did adapt systems enabling detainees to connect to lawyers or courts remotely; however, efforts were often hampered by practical issues (see Role and use of technologies). In Sierra Leone, for example, while a phone was made available for use in each facility, poor network connectivity and lack of battery or phone credit created barriers for detainees to access legal representatives and other services. Elsewhere, challenges reported included the cost of calls been incurred by detainees, limits on duration of calls and bureaucratic challenges in adding legal representatives and others to lists of authorised call recipients.
As visitation schemes were reintroduced, these have generally come with new regulations and restrictions. Certain categories of persons are excluded entirely from visits, like in Brazil where persons aged over 60 years old, people with chronic illness, pregnant women and children were not permitted to visit detainees. With regard to the latter group, guidance on children of imprisoned parents was issued in recognition of the serious impact of such restrictions. Many countries, including Singapore and Poland, introduced a visitor’s health assessment and temperature checking, while others required visitors to provide travel history.
When visits resumed or were permitted, the impact of such measures did in some cases see rates of visits drop. The conditions for visits entailing lack of physical contact, restrictions on number of people in a visiting party and children’s play areas being closed, among other measures, both deterred visitors and led to people in prison asking visitors not to come, as was reported in England, for instance. Furthermore, restrictions on contact with the outside world in some cases led to unrest in prison facilities, such as in Italy. This was exacerbated where blanket bans were introduced with no warning as seen in Venezuela, where there was no coordination with healthcare experts or communication with detainees (see Security and violence). Restrictions on visits have also led to reports of worsening levels of corruption, as in the Congo, where bribes were reportedly exchanged for visits.
There were some exceptions to visitor bans. In the north of Kenya, prisons remained open to external visitors, which allowed for ongoing psychological support and independent monitoring throughout the past year. In Kazakhstan, visitors were allowed and provided with disinfectants and facemasks as a prevention measure. In Uganda, lawyers have continued to permit legal representatives to visit their clients in prison on scheduled visits.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.