In May 2020, the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by a white policeman in the US sparked global protests against the pervasive, long-standing race-based discrimination in criminal justice systems globally. The Black Lives Matter movement led to some immediate action to address systemic racism, particularly in the US, and international institutions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Council and the EU Commission vowed action. The attention of protests and policymakers largely focused on police and law enforcement reform. Many political statements, declarations, action plans, etc. failed to mention racial discrimination in prisons as a manifestation of racism in criminal justice systems.
In the US, black men are imprisoned at rates nearly six times that of white men; in Brazil, two out of three people in prison are black.
The most recent demonstration of the widespread discrimination faced by ethnic minorities has been seen with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Data available on COVID-19 in the community shows that ethnic minorities are more likely to be infected or die from COVID-19, although the reasons remain undetermined with various studies and commissions underway. In Canada, the Correctional Investigator reported in June 2020 that Inuit people contracted the virus at disproportionate rates, compared to their representation in the prison population. This suggests a similar or exacerbated problem in prisons although authorities have generally failed to capture or publish data – broken down by ethnicity –on COVID-19 rates in prisons (see Data collection and transparency).
There have been many cases of racial discrimination reported in the penalisation of COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic. The UN has drawn attention to people of African descent ‘being disproportionately controlled, harassed and profiled by law enforcement authorities, with other people being treated differently or not subjected to control at all.’ Minorities are the ‘hardest hit by the pandemic, including by job losses, the inability to socially distance or quarantine and limited access to quality health care’ and are therefore more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system.
The proportion of Indigenous peoples in prison continue to rise, particularly in Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
A report on 12 European countries by Amnesty International details racial bias in the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions. In France and Belgium, neighbourhoods with large ethnic minority communities have been heavily and disproportionately policed; in Romania, police violence against Roma people were reported. In Australia, a report detailed allegations of police surveillance of Aboriginal communities on the grounds of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. In the state of Victoria 4.7 per cent of fines issued for violations of COVID 19 restrictions were received by Aboriginal people, despite making up just 0.8 per cent of the population.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.