“Long before the pandemic hit, unsatisfactory prison conditions were reported by European monitoring bodies”

Op-ed by Florence Laufer, Director of Prison Insider, ahead of public event on 13 October 2021.

News / 07.10.21

Florence Laufer, is the Director of Prison Insider, an information platform on prisons in the world, Its objective is to inform, compare and share testimonial on conditions of detention, with regards to fundamental rights.

More than 1,5 million people were incarcerated in European prisons when the coronavirus first crossed their walls. The COVID-19 pandemic surprised most governments due to its rapid development, complex nature, and intensity.

Prison conditions are complex to document, and prison is often described as a black box of which little information emerges. This was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic: due the suspension or downturn of visits and activities, external actors were prevented from entering in detention. Independent monitoring bodies, civil society organizations, lawyers and families were alarmed and repeatedly called for access with appropriate preventive measures.

Long before the pandemic hit, unsatisfactory prison conditions were reported by monitoring bodies. They have been the object of several complaints from prisoners submitted to the European Court of Human Rights. In January 2020, at least fourteen countries around Europe were dealing with overcrowded prisons. Prison density rates reached 115% in France, 117% in Belgium and 120% in Italy. The lack of appropriated health care and sufficient health staff was reported by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture in several occasions. In Romania, for instance, there were 167 doctors for more than 20,500 prisoners in 2020. Curable diseases as hepatitis (B and C) and tuberculosis have long been common amongst prisoners in Spain, Belgium and Portugal. The spread of COVID-19 thus represented a major threat for those incarcerated in shared cells and under unsanitary living conditions.

Despite long-term engagement from human rights defenders and civil society organisations for the respect of prisoners’ rights, calls and recommendations were only scarcely considered in the past. The coronavirus urged the authorities to (re)act rapidly and make pragmatic decisions.

Curbing the spread of the virus was achieved at high expense: prisoners were almost entirely cut out from the outside world, both in terms of external support and monitoring. In some countries, prisoners emerged relatively unscathed from the first wave of the coronavirus in terms of infections, but they were more isolated than ever. This raised the fear of undocumented abuse and increased suicidal risk and other mental health issues. In Ireland, between April and June 2020, people aged over 70 and those with chronic illness were automatically isolated to protect them from contagion. Many were held in the so-called cocooning cells for periods of up to 30 hours. The Irish Prison Inspector reported that many prisoners held in cocooning expressed suicidal and depressive feeling. In Norway, the Ombudsman noted that prisoners placed in quarantine or medical isolation were subjected to an excessive use of measures akin to solitary confinement: 23 hours per day locked up alone, with one hour of outdoor exercise, for up to 14 days.

On the other hand, previously identified tools and strategies were activated in several countries with short notice, to achieve results in compliance with prisoners’ fundamental rights: increase of resources for prison healthcare, additional communication means with the outside, and rapid reduction of the prison population. According to SPACE, at least 25 European prison administration granted early releases as a preventive measure between March and September 2020. The Catalan prison administration released 23% of its prison population, while France and Portugal released 17%. This strategy – added to the downturn of criminal justice systems and to lower crime rates during lockdowns – lead to an overall decrease of the prison population in the first nine months of the sanitary crisis.

Many countries, however, reversed this trend shortly after the lockdowns. In France, the prison population and prison density started rising again by mid-2020. One year later, the number of prisoners had increased by more than 15%, while there were 2,6 times more people sleeping on mattresses on the floor. This shows that short-term solutions have had low structural effects in the long run.

The respect of international and European standards on detention conditions proved to be not only a realistic objective but also a crucial beacon both in normal times and in crisis. Achieving sustainable change complying with these standards remains a key challenge for the Europe of tomorrow.

Prison Insider is co-hosting a series of webinars in partnership with MEP Diana Riba I Giner. The next webinar, focusing on Prison conditions in Europe, will be held on 13 October at 4pm (CET). Speakers will include Hans Wolff (CPT Vice-President), Iñaki Rivera (Observatorio del Sistema Penal y los Derechos Humanos), Dominique Simonnot (Contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté), and Stella Moris, lawyer and partner of Julian Assange.

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Coppieters Foundation is financially supported by the European Parliament. The European Parliament is not liable for the content of the studies nor the opinions of the speakers.

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