People in prison can play a valuable role in crisis response efforts. Their involvement is not only pragmatic and cost-effective but can also help individuals feel part of the collective responsibility to respond to disaster situations and assist in their eventual rehabilitation. However, involvement of people detained also comes with risks that must be well regulated and monitored to protect against abuse and exploitation, as well as to safeguard the community.
Many countries rely heavily on the input of people in prison in times of crisis. In several countries including Brazil, prison volunteers help to fight wildfires, and in the US, detainees have been involved in clean-up efforts following severe storms. Authorities’ reliance on people in detention to fight wildfires in the US recently came to light when movement restrictions, quarantine and early releases due to COVID-19 led to short staffing in firefighting services.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw unprecedented levels of involvement and engagement by prison populations in local and national initiatives to respond to the crisis. These experiences were mixed, with reports that some were exploited to make masks and other PPE equipment, while others expressed a desire to contribute and volunteered their time to help their community.
Detainee-led initiatives to tackle the pandemic appear to have been particularly successful. These included the production of face masks, as well as peer-to-peer education, COVID-19 information awareness and psycho-social support groups. These approaches provided people in prison with purposeful activities when other programmes were cancelled and gave them a sense of involvement and responsibility within their community. In Kazakhstan, detainees were encouraged to sew masks and make other PPE to make up for the lack of other activities, also providing them with valuable skills for the future. In South Africa, people in prison were involved in converting a prison into a COVID-19 quarantine centre.
Involvement in COVID-19 response efforts have also formed part of rehabilitation programmes. In Jordan, PRI worked with authorities to establish a vocational training programme in prisons to produce sanitation machines for police stations throughout the country, forming part of the rehabilitation programmes for people detained. In Namibia, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has supported a soap and hand sanitiser production facility as a rehabilitation project which promotes efforts to curb COVID-19 in the country while also improving vocational skills and giving people better opportunities on release.
However, not all crisis response efforts involving people in prison are organised as part of formal rehabilitation programmes. Some are hastily organised, ill-thought through and fail to recognise the contribution of people in prison. Prison labour is authorised under specific conditions set out by, among others, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Nelson Mandela Rules, which include protections around the health and safety of workers, maximum working hours and equitable remuneration. However, these provisions are often disregarded, putting people in prison in danger and at risk of exploitation and other abusive practices.
In COVID-19-related initiatives there have been concerns raised in several countries over the working hours, conditions and lack of remuneration for people in prison engaged in the manufacture of facemasks and other PPE, including complaints that materials were not fairly distributed. In Bangladesh, there were reports that masks made by people in prison were distributed to prison officers for free but those detained had to pay for them. In other places, the use of people in prison in the battle against COVID-19 raised significant concerns over forced labour. In Hong Kong for example, women detained complained about their health, low pay and round-the-clock production when government agencies doubled their monthly production rates of masks due to shortages.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.