The coronavirus pandemic brought high risk to the health and lives of prison staff, as well as worsening working conditions for prison staff. While some countries classified or termed prison staff as frontline, essential or at higher risk, overall, their situation did not receive adequate attention from political decision-makers.
Where data is available it shows there is a great variation in infection and death rates from COVID-19 among prison staff. Prison staff in some countries have contracted COVID-19 at rates higher than the general population (for example, more than two times higher in Colombia and England and Wales; and seven times higher in South Africa), and in some places more cases have been identified among staff than detainees. In Poland, by February 2021, 4,207 cases of staff contracting COVID-19 were reported, representing 85 per cent of all cases in the country’s prisons. In South Africa, 5,000 infections had been recorded among prison staff by December 2020, representing 62 per cent of all cases identified in detention facilities. Data collected from 30 European prison administrations show that at least 18,500 prison officials were infected by the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.
The rates of COVID-19 among staff remains unknown in many countries due to a lack of systematic testing of prison staff, or a failure to gather data and/or make it publicly available.
In the US, figures are incomplete as prison staff are not systematically tested, and many states are not releasing relevant information publicly. Therefore, the reported 201 deaths of staff from the virus and more than 110,658 positive tests for COVID-19 among staff as of April 2021 will actually be higher.
Various measures were put in place to protect prison staff from coronavirus. Training on preventative measures and basic knowledge of the virus, spotting symptoms, etc. was rolled-out in the majority of countries. Often this was delivered with the assistance of international agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross, UN agencies and civil society organisations, including PRI (see Health in prison).
The provision of equipment to prison staff (and prisons generally) such as face masks, gloves, hand sanitiser and disinfectant solutions varied greatly from country to country. In high-income countries, medical masks were often available to custodial staff. Disposable full gowns and eye protection were also available in many European countries, albeit the latter usually only when coming into close contact a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Elsewhere, access to adequate equipment for prisons remains a challenge. In Indonesia, face masks are only provided to prison staff or detainees at high risk, for instance. In one prison in Iran, it has been reported that medical staff went on strike in protest of a lack of preventative measures, and similarly prison staff in Malawi protested their lack of access to PPE.
Many penitentiary systems have adopted extraordinary working regimes to limit movement in and out of facilities and high turnover of staff.
A number of countries saw longer staff shifts to reduce risks, including Kosovo, Norway, Italy and Israel. Another common strategy adopted in countries like Portugal, Spain and the US was a decision to reduce staff to decrease the number of people coming in and out of facilities. In several facilities in China, officials opted for a rotation of a 14-day work shift, a 14-day break and a 14-day quarantine.
Some prison administrations restricted movement of staff to limit transmission. In Uganda, where prison staff often live on site, they and their families were restricted from leaving the prison campus as they usually could, in some places for up to 7 months. In regions with higher COVID-19 infection rates, staff in some prisons were further confined to the offices and cells enclosure for weeks or months. In Georgia, prison staff in all facilities were ‘locked down’ on site, resulting in irregular working hours, increased stress and anxiety, reduced contact with family and a negative impact on relations with people detained, reportedly linked to staff exhaustion. In one prison that PRI visited, staff slept in administrative quarters or vacant cells; their meals were served free of charge by the facility and in their free time they could exercise in a gym.
Regulations for prison staff outside of work were common, including bans on travelling abroad as implemented by administrations in Singapore, Israel, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In Morocco, prison staff were required to observe a strict stay-at-home order during their week off.
Staff shortages in prisons have been reported widely due to illness, mandatory isolation and changes in organisational structures during the pandemic. In South Africa, the correctional service had to mobilise trainees and army reserves to compensate for staff shortages. In exceptional cases on the other hand, including in the US state of Florida and in France, some prison officers have acknowledged that the reduced numbers of people in prison (due to releases) have made it easier to do their jobs and improved relations with people in their facility.
STAFF TO PRISONER RATIOS:
Short staffing is a common issue in many contexts and is especially a concern regarding specific categories of staff. Many prison systems lack professionals in healthcare, education or social support. People in prison consequently face increasing difficulties in having basic access to healthcare, education, and social and rehabilitation support. In Sri Lanka, it was reported that the lack of doctors in prisons during the night, coupled with a shortage of staff on patrol, has led to delayed medical interventions for prisoners in need, and sometimes, deaths. In Niger, a recent audit of the prison workforce stated that there was a lack of female staff, especially of female medical professionals.
STAFF TO PRISONER RATIO PER CATEGORY OF STAFF:
Where staff shortages occur, prison officials have to supervise larger groups with less resources, often for longer shifts. A 2020 study showed that all 50 US states reported understaffing and high levels of overtime. In the state of Minnesota, a recent audit showed that short staffing had negatively affected educational, vocational and recreational activities for people in prisons and contributed to tensions and violent incidents.
There are a range of reasons for challenges in staffing prisons with adequate levels and qualified personnel. Working conditions and low salaries are commonly reported. In Uganda in 2017, the Auditor General noted a high staff attrition rate, especially compared to a 41 per cent vacancy rate, which could partly be explained by the poor accommodation conditions provided to over 6,000 staff. The entry salary for prison warders in 2016/2017 was UGX 367,000 per month (around USD $100), below the median monthly wage of public employees of UGX 457,500 that year. In South Africa, the Department of Correctional Services noted in its latest activity report in 2019/20 that new recruits did not compensate for staff leaving through retirement or resignation, partly because of a decreasing budget allocated to salaries. In Georgia, a recent staff survey showed that prison jobs were unattractive notably because salaries were not commensurate with responsibilities and working conditions.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.