The experience of COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of a coordinated approach between prison and national authorities when dealing with crises of different kinds. The global reach of the pandemic has focused attention on prison emergency preparedness more than ever before; weaknesses have been exposed and important lessons continue to be learned. With other health, environmental and conflict crises looming, now is an important time to take stock of and plan for how criminal justice systems can respond to future emergencies.
COVID-19 has led authorities to pay more attention to what prison reform advocates have been saying for many years – that prison systems are better able to cope with their daily functions and are better prepared to deal with threats of all kinds when they are less crowded, better resourced and organised in closer coordination with other relevant national agencies.
While emergency measures put in place to reduce prison populations due to COVID-19 are not sustainable in the long term, they have presented many opportunities to document the impact of decongestion measures on public safety and could pave the way for systemic reform (see Imprisonment and prison overcrowding, Global Prison Trends 2021). One study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found no correlation between reductions in prison populations and crime trends in 29 locations between March and May 2020, meaning that releasing people from prison into the community did not result in increased crime rates. Such figures reflect earlier studies which found that reductions in prison populations are often linked to a decline in crime rates.
The rapid decisions made by authorities on which people could be safely released from prison into the community are also useful to inform future discussions on reducing the use of imprisonment, and call into question the necessity of imprisoning these groups in the first place. Releases tended to focus on those convicted of less serious offences, those serving shorter sentences, vulnerable individuals and those close to release. A recent study found that schemes where some people were permanently released can be ‘a highly effective strategy, provided they are implemented in a structured, transparent and ordered manner.’
Crisis situations can also change public attitudes towards imprisonment. The media focus on the devastating impact of COVID-19 in prisons has somewhat framed debate around the poor state of prison healthcare, prison overcrowding and the mental health impact on people in prison. When people in prison are affected by the same environmental, health and crisis situations as those in the community, people may better identify and sympathise with their situation. However, negative public reaction to emergency release mechanisms during COVID-19 in some places also highlights the need for effective public communication strategies (see Releases in response to COVID-19, Global Prison Trends 2021).
The onset of a crisis of any kind exposes weaknesses within a country’s institutions and magnifies existing inequalities. The conditions in which a crisis hits and the resources available for disaster response are fundamental to a governments’ ability to respond effectively, but the political will to protect lives is equally important.
The impact of crises on prison staff also needs to be recognised, with their health and safety equally at risk, and significant personal implications if they need to be evacuated and separated from their families during emergencies. People in prison and staff need to know that they will not be forgotten or ignored during a time of crisis and, when a crisis hits, they need to be kept informed of events in the outside world, including what is happening to their families, friends and communities.
The inevitability of future crises, including conflict, natural disaster and health emergencies, and the resultant impact on prisons, requires enhanced contingency measures to be developed in all countries. The onset of COVID-19 demonstrated that no facility is immune from crisis and that even well-functioning prison systems can take steps to improve their crisis preparedness and prioritise human rights protections within those plans.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.