New research reveals devastating impact of pandemic on prisoners

18 May 2021

The prisons research team at the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London has published new research on measures taken to control the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, and their impact on prisoners’ health and wellbeing. The research covers a diverse group of countries across five continents and includes first-hand accounts of how life in custody changed from March 2020.

When the pandemic emerged, most countries’ prison systems were running above their official capacity, after decades of rising prisoner numbers. From early March 2020, prisons across the world quickly locked down. With visits from the outside world largely suspended, prisoners were deprived of family contact, legal advice, visits from voluntary agencies and monitoring bodies. Rehabilitation, work, education and other activities largely ceased. Prisoners spent long periods locked up with little or no contact with others.

Initially, the restrictions were met with protest, disorder and serious violence. Since then, with no end to the pandemic in sight, this protracted ‘double lockdown’ has continued to take a heavy toll on prisoners’ mental and physical health. These reports offer a timely opportunity to reassess policy and practice in the quest for effective and balanced responses to the particular challenges that COVID-19 poses for prison systems.

The research shows that the health and social impacts of the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it are more severe in countries with overcrowded, under-resourced prisons. The risks of spread of infection are much greater in prisons with limited physical space and inadequate staffing levels – conditions that also make it even more difficult to maintain provision for education, work, rehabilitation, and social interaction at this time of public health emergency.

Early signs are that global prisoner numbers have declined since early 2020, for several reasons connected to the pandemic. Sustaining and building on these reductions is the single most effective strategy to contain the public health risks presented by contagious diseases without causing collateral damage to the mental and physical health of prisoners, prison staff and their families.

Lead author Catherine Heard, Senior Research Fellow at ICPR and Director of the World Prison Research Programme, commented: 

“Just months before the pandemic, our research revealed the disastrous health consequences of over-incarceration. Restrictive regimes in place since March 2020 may have reduced COVID infection levels, but at high cost in social and psychological harm from this prolonged ‘double lockdown’. With no end to the pandemic in sight, the focus must be on reducing prisoner numbers, so that the ‘cure’ – in the shape of isolation, inactivity, lack of basic services, lost rehabilitation outcomes – is not worse than the disease.”

Professor Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR, added:

“When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, there was immediate concern about the potential impacts on prison systems across the world. Today, 14 months later, prisons remain ‘a potential reservoir and amplifier of infection’, as expressed by the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Our reports make clear that bringing down prisoner numbers is an essential component of any efforts to contain the vast and ongoing threat of COVID in prison settings.”

  • Keeping COVID out of prisons: Approaches in ten countries examines, in a diverse group of ten countries: steps taken to manage the size of national prison populations, and their consequences; the available data on COVID cases and deaths among prisoners; and measures designed to reduce contact between prisoners and others to limit infection within, and beyond prison walls. The countries covered by the project span five continents; they are Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the USA (focusing on New York State), India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia (focusing on New South Wales).
  • Locked in and locked down – prison life in a pandemic: Evidence from ten countries presents first-hand accounts by prisoners across the ten countries of how their daily lives and routines were impacted by restrictions on visits, activities and social interaction
  • These are the final reports in a series produced under the international comparative research and policy project ‘Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries’.