Many prisons have been at breaking point for too long, with low budgets, inadequate staffing, poor conditions and a growing number of people to provide for and supervise. This hidden fragility is laid bare when external crises hit.
In times of economic uncertainty and political instability, or when environmental disasters, health crises and conflict threaten prison systems, they falter and fail. Systemic weaknesses allow for a rapid deterioration of law and order and, without speedy intervention, chaos can ensue. When people in prison are forgotten, neglected and exploited, the impact on individuals and on broader society can be disastrous.
More than a year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, this Special Focus for Global Prison Trends 2021 takes a look at how authorities respond to different crisis situations, how prisons and the people within them are affected, and considers what measures authorities can put in place for better crisis preparedness and response.
Problems within prisons often reflect wider societal problems, and this is particularly evident when a country is hit by a crisis. People in prison become even more dependent on the government to ensure their safety, health and wellbeing, and to provide for their basic needs. Crises rarely come in isolation, with conflict and extreme weather events creating prime breeding grounds for disease, environmental disasters leading to political instability and health crises exposing economic fragility.
Unlike in the community, people in prison cannot evacuate their homes when conflict arises or natural disaster threatens. They cannot decide to flee if they are at risk of attack, and they have limited means to protect themselves against infectious diseases.
This became clear in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic with detainees being wholly reliant on prison authorities to protect them from the virus.
In all crisis situations, the health and wellbeing of people in prison and staff must remain the priority, and human rights protection must be at the forefront of response plans. Disaster planning and emergency management requires an integrated approach with other agencies and should include crisis prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. It should involve consultation with people in prison as well as staff.
As became apparent by the impact of COVID-19 on prisons, the most successful response strategies in crisis situations involve human rights-based, proportionate and pragmatic responses, clear communication, and the engagement of both staff and prison populations. Effective responses require everyone to be alert, active and involved. Measures to mitigate the adverse impact
of any crisis are important and must take account of any specific or disproportionate impact on particular groups of people in prison, including women, children and older persons.