Over a year on from the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, this seventh edition of Global Prison Trends is published jointly by Penal Reform International (PRI) and the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ). This report documents key trends over the past year, especially the impact of the pandemic on prison populations and staff, and how prisons worldwide have responded to these challenges.
The dangers posed by COVID-19 to people detained and staff working in cramped, overcrowded conditions in prison were acknowledged in the earliest stages of the pandemic. High-level United Nations (UN) and government figures made statements highlighting the risk to life and health in prisons and, as Global Prison Trends 2021 describes, most countries implemented some form of emergency releases to reduce the prison population. As countries continue to navigate new waves of the pandemic, prisons remain hotbeds for virus transmission. Also, new offences for breaching COVID-19 regulations and the resumption of court processes have led to increases in prison numbers.
The challenges faced by prisons over the past year have been compounded by decades of inadequate funding and criminal justice reform. The pandemic has exposed the impact of overcrowding and under-resourcing of prisons in the gravest of terms – through the loss of life. We mourn every death in prison, both people detained and staff, and encourage all actors to learn from the experience of the past year, as detailed in Global Prison Trends 2021, to ensure prison systems protect the human rights of those they hold.
Health crises and other emergencies are not unprecedented in prisons. This year’s Special Focus examines prisons in crises, and how authorities respond to health crises, natural hazards and extreme weather, or in fragile and conflict-affected settings. We examine how prisons and the people within them are affected, as well as the involvement of prison populations in times of such crises and consider what measures authorities can put in place for better preparedness and response.
For human rights to be most effectively protected – especially in emergencies – we need fewer people in prison. Therefore, addressing prison overcrowding and promoting the use of alternatives to imprisonment are key priorities for both PRI and the TIJ. In this vein, 30 years after the adoption of the UN Standard Minimum Rules on Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules), and 10 years since the adoption of the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), we must all work to increase the use of alternatives to imprisonment. Global Prison Trends 2021 documents some good progress towards implementation of these standards, as well as the new challenges faced by probation services during the pandemic.
In March of this year, the Kyoto Declaration was adopted at the 14th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Japan by all UN member states, setting out the crime prevention and criminal justice agenda for the next five years. Building rehabilitative criminal justice systems remains a core issue for many governments and actors in this field as reflected in the Declaration – and this is much needed and an area in which civil society and institutions play a key role.
The global pandemic has been a solemn reminder there is much more work to be done to protect the most vulnerable people in our societies. With less than nine years remaining to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, Global Prison Trends 2021 documents the specific challenges faced by women, children, older people, and other marginalised groups in the justice system. With limited or no disaggregated data publicly available in many prison systems, our combined research, operations and expertise allows us to continue to identify and highlight key trends affecting these populations to ensure ‘No one will be left behind’ as we build back better from this global crisis.
Penal Reform International
Thailand Institute of Justice