COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on prisoners. As of March 2021, an estimated 527,000 prisoners had contracted the virus globally, a number that will continue to grow as the pandemic continues to grow.
This, unfortunately, is not surprising.
There have long been problems within prisons – overcrowding, inadequate medical treatment and a lack of ventilation to name a few – that make them places where viruses can spread easily.
Many prisoners – who often come from the most marginalized groups in societies – also have underlying medical conditions. Finally, prisoners are not given priority when it comes to obtaining personal protective equipment or vaccines during a pandemic.
releasing prisoners during the pandemic
Recognizing these issues, the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies issued a statement in May 2020 calling on governments around the world to release prisoners who were “at particular risk of COVID-19” and who were “at particular risk of COVID-19”. “could have been released without compromising public safety.”
Since the start of the pandemic, more than a million prisoners have reportedly been released around the world. According to Penal Reform International, the largest-scale releases have been recorded in Turkey (over 114,000 prisoners), Iran (104,000), the Philippines (82,000), India (68,000), Iraq (62,000) and Ethiopia (40,000).
Some European countries, including France and Norway, reportedly released more than 15 percent of their prison population. Jordan released 30 percent, Penal Reform International statistics show. Releases were also released in the United States, but the prison population did not decrease significantly, despite the fact that there were 5.5 times more COVID-19 cases in prisons than in the general population.
In Canada, prisoners were freed across the country during the first wave, mainly from provincial prisons, which included the release of 2,300 prisoners in Ontario as of April 2020.
This is unprecedented. While governments throughout history have allowed prisoners to be released sooner during pandemics or in pursuit of a different political agenda, it has never happened on such a large scale.
Read more: How politics played a big role in the release of prisoners
Problems with pandemic prisoner release
These releases have had a positive impact on the released prisoners and their families. However, new research, including ongoing work by lawyer and global governance graduate student Ashley Mungai and me, reveals important issues.
Several governments had promised releases but were slow to comply. The United Kingdom announced that it would consider releasing 4,000 prisoners in April 2020, but as of May of that year only 57 had been released.
Often, there is little publicly available data about releases, making it difficult to hold governments accountable.
For many prisoners, being released did not bring freedom. Globally, an estimated 42 percent of prisoners were granted conditional release. Some were temporarily released, including Iran.
In the US, some of the nearly 23,000 inmates released to home confinement – which are restrictions on their own liberties – may be sent back to prison after receiving vaccinations.
In Thailand, prisoners were sent to work in factories.
In Myanmar, released as part of the annual New Year’s Apology. Historically, many countries have had an annual pardon, such as during Bastille Day in France. But inmates shouldn’t wait to be on vacation in the midst of an infectious disease epidemic.
Several categories of prisoners were also excluded from the release of the pandemic. For example, political prisoners and people awaiting trial in Turkey were not considered.
The incarceration rate is rising
The release of prisoners also appears to be a short-term response to COVID-19. Since the first wave, when an estimated 475,000 prisoners were released around the world, very few have been released.
The imprisoned population has actually increased in many countries. While the prison population in Canada had initially dropped by 15 percent – including a 41 percent reduction in Nova Scotia – it was increasing as of September 2020, despite the fact that COVID-19 continues to spread in prisons.
Finally, the number of people released from prison is often far less than the number of people who are arrested. For example, in Sri Lanka, only 3,000 prisoners have been allowed early release, while nearly 40,000 have been arrested for violating the pandemic curfew.
One of the common concerns raised about releasing prisoners is that it would undermine public safety. Yet research has shown that this has not happened. Instead, it is clear that governments can safely and effectively release prisoners when there is a political will to do so.
Read more: If Canada is serious about confronting systemic racism, we should end prisons
This discussion about public safety also ignores the fact that prisons do not make communities safer, but do harm. The pandemic has made this clearer than ever and has also shed light on long-standing problems within prisons.
Rather than being a temporary response to COVID-19, early release should be one of several measures implemented to build a future without prisons.