The provision of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for people in prison is inconsistent from one country to another. Where punitive approaches are pursued, or resources are dire there are few opportunities. Some systems however have comprehensive rehabilitation programmes which are central to prison life and involve delivery from many stakeholders.
Restrictions on movement and contact with the outside world brought in when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared have enormously impacted the delivery of programmes. Training, educational and work activities have been suspended – often for extensive periods or continue to be – in most countries. In a survey across all Latin American countries (except El Salvador), 90 per cent of prison systems had restricted educational activities and over half of the prison systems had curtailed work. It was found that increased tension and violence was reported in more than half of these settings.
The inability to take part in certain activities and programmes is often an essential part of demonstrating successful rehabilitation which is linked to release decisions. In over half of the US, prison sentences can be reduced by working, obtaining education degrees or completing programmes to address drug and alcohol use. While some states have made concessions because these programmes being suspended, others have not, making prison sentences longer.
The cancellation of work programmes meant loss of essential income in many instances, although compensation was provided in a number of countries.
In some jurisdictions, rehabilitation programmes were able to continue, albeit with adaptations. Programmes involving one-to-one sessions have continued in Estonia; in Thailand, preventive measures such as allowing basic vocational training to be led by trained detainees and prison staff and ensuring adequate training materials enabled work programmes to continue. Where there was access to digital technology, online solutions were utilised, enabling adaptation or new programmes to be put in place. In Ireland’s Mountjoy Prison, online access to courses at a university were introduced and several universities in the US continued or introduced new courses for people in prison via online platforms. In Thailand, also, prisons in collaboration with academic institutions organised online language classes.
In the current market where digital literacy of at least a basic level is required for many jobs (and daily life), digital neglect in prisons increasingly results in a systematic denial of opportunities to learn or gain employment. It has also left prisons far less resilient to the coronavirus, as those without online access could not adapt rehabilitation services to an online platform. To overcome this challenge there have been increased efforts to train people in detention for employment in the tech sector, where an estimated 149 million new jobs could be created over the next five years. The idea of training people in prison for the tech sector is not a new phenomenon but has increased in recent years as digital technologies have become more commonplace.
In places where reintegration plans and post-release support were lacking before the pandemic, people being released over the past year are faced with additional burden.
In Colombia, it has been reported that women released have nowhere to go (not least due to abandonment and stigma) and they are forced into the informal labour market with jobs that expose them to high risk of COVID-19. Day or temporary release schemes – used ahead of the end of a sentence to facilitate reintegration – have been impacted. In Europe, many schemes were stopped for months, and in cases where they resumed as restrictions eased, those returning to prison were subjected to measures imposed on new arrivals (sometimes involving isolation).
With mass release schemes coupled with community services suspended due to restrictions, people leaving prison sometimes went without support. In March 2020, reports suggest that authorities in Maharashtra state in India made no arrangements to help people released during lockdown – when no public transport was available – to find their way home, and that people were released with no information about the virus or how to protect themselves. In England and Wales, over 1,000 persons were released into homelessness during the first months of the pandemic in 2020, at the height of the first wave of infections.
Issues around travelling home where a lockdown or curfew were in place put people at risk of getting rearrested. In Thailand, temporary accommodation was set up for people released from a Bangkok prison to stay for one night, to prevent them from breaching curfew while travelling home. In Uganda, PRI assisted 86 people released under COVID-19 measures to return home safely by providing transportation.