1. COVID-19 release schemes have done little to halt the rise in prison populations
There are 11 million people in prison globally – a rise of about 8 per cent over the last 10 years. Prisons are operating above capacity in 119 countries, and measures to reduce prison populations have been inadequate. At least 109 countries adopted measures to release people from prison in response to the pandemic, but many were abandoned or ineffective. Arrests for COVID-19-related offences and clearing court backlogs increased overcrowding in some places.
2. People continue to face increased risk of COVID-19 in prison
A reported 3,931 people in prison have died due to COVID-19 in 47 countries, and over 532,100 people in prison have tested positive in 122 countries, but the true numbers are much higher. People in prison are especially vulnerable due to cramped living conditions, lack of hygiene supplies and poorer health status.
3. The overuse of pre-trial detention continues despite the pandemic
Three million people are in pre-trial detention, a rise of 30 per cent since 2000. While some people on remand benefitted from release schemes, COVID-19-related arrests led to an increase in the use of pre-trial detention.
4. The pandemic has exacerbated failures in prison healthcare
Many prison systems have failed to implement critical COVID-19 preventive measures. Low levels of medical staff and resources for healthcare have been further stretched, which, coupled with restrictive regimes, has affected healthcare provision in prisons – both for COVID-19 and other health conditions.
5. The prevention of COVID-19 outbreaks in many prisons came at a cost to human rights
Many rights have been violated under severe restrictions. Regimes of solitary confinement, or at least measures where people were isolated, quarantined or confined in groups, have been in place for months. Levels of violence and unrest have risen, and people have been cut off from the outside world, including access to essential supplies.
6. COVID-19 measures in prisons have had a devastating effect on mental health
The pre-pandemic mental health crisis in many prisons globally has reached grave new levels due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the suspension or downgrading of mental healthcare provisions. Data shows that self-harm and suicide rates have risen among some prison populations.
7. People in prison have widely protested against shortcomings in COVID-19 responses
Reports of protests and violent incidents in prisons are linked to the handling of COVID-19, including restrictive measures imposed, fear of infection and the lack of action and provisions. Excessive use of force by authorities in responding to such protests has led to death and injury of people detained.
8. New offences under COVID-19 regulations have affected the most marginalised
Criminalisation of non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations has effectively criminalised poverty and affected the most marginalised. Enforcement of restrictions has been racially biased and discriminatory. In some countries, such offences attracted pre-trial detention or prison sentences.
9. There are major issues in data collection and transparency in prisons
Long-standing shortcomings in data collection and transparency in prisons have been highlighted during the pandemic. Rates of COVID-19 among staff and people detained remain unknown in many countries, as do the implementation and the impact of release mechanisms.
10. More women are in prison than ever before
New analysis shows that 740,000 women are in prison globally, an increase of over 100,000 in a decade. Women have suffered increased hardship in prison during the pandemic. COVID-19 response strategies have left women behind, including in release schemes.
11. Children were left behind in COVID-19 responses
At least 410,000 children are in prison every year. Despite the risks and impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on children, including solitary confinement, children were not explicitly included in many release schemes; where they were, data is scarce as to whether they benefitted.
12. Prison staff have suffered during the pandemic
Prison staff have endured changes in their workloads and conditions, even living or being locked down on site for weeks or months. They have faced an increased risk of contracting the virus, accounting for up to 88 per cent of COVID-19 cases in some prison systems. Staff shortages and low prisoner-to-staff ratios have worsened during the pandemic.
13. There has been an increase in alternatives to imprisonment, but with some challenges
There was an expansion and growth of alternatives to imprisonment in response to COVID-19, although the impact varied significantly. The implementation of non-custodial sentences has faced practical issues due to government restrictions and overburdened probation agencies.
14. New technologies have offered a lifeline to many people detained, but not to all
Communication technologies have been installed or expanded to facilitate contact with families and provision of telemedicine, rehabilitation and other vital services in many places. However, the digital divide has meant people in prisons without online access have been left behind.
15. Racism in criminal justice systems has been put in the spotlight
The Black Lives Matter movement led to some immediate action to address systemic racism, although the attention of protests and policymakers largely focused on police and law enforcement reform rather than sentencing or prisons. Ethnic minorities continue to be over-represented in many prison populations.
16. Life imprisonment sentences are on the rise, causing human rights violations
Almost half a million people are serving a formal life imprisonment sentence, and an unknown number are under informal life sentences. A rise in life sentences is replacing death sentences, as punitive approaches to crime persist.
17. Punitive prohibition-based drug policies are driving up prison populations
An estimated 2.5 million people in prison are convicted of drug-related offences, 22 per cent of them for drug possession for personal use. There have been some moves towards decriminalisation of certain drug-related offences.
18. Universal abolition of the death penalty remains on track, with some setbacks
The movement towards the universal abolition of the death penalty continues to grow, and 2020 saw a record low number of executions worldwide. However, at least 483 people were executed in 18 countries.
Key facts and figures
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.