Saturday

6th Jun 2020

Opinion

Covid-19 in Europe's prisons - and the response

  • Evidence from countries like the USA, UK and France all demonstrate the risk of Covid-19 spreading in prisons (Photo: Jumilla)

Overcrowding and inhumane conditions in Europe's prisons are long-standing problems.

Member states' prisons have frequently been found to violate the most basic human rights standards by the European Court of Human Rights.

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The spread of Covid-19 across Europe has, however, given new urgency to the need to address these issues. The JUSTICIA network of human rights organisations from across Europe is demanding urgent action.

Even when not in the midst of a pandemic, prisoners are some of the most vulnerable to infectious disease due to poor access to sanitation and health facilities and often unsanitary conditions.

As we all know, one of the most important public health measures to combat Covid-19 is restriction of physical contact and proximity.

But in prison this is often impossible – particularly due to overcrowding. As staff contract the virus and visits are suspended, tension and violence also increase, leading to further risks to the life and health of both residents and prison staff.

The best way to preserve public health and safety and protect the right to life, is to reduce the number of people in detention.

Rights organisations across Europe have therefore been urging states to release prisoners.

Fortunately, many member states have been taking action to reduce prisoner numbers by, for example: releasing certain categories of prisoners early (as in the Netherlands, Ireland and France); increasing the use of house arrest (as in Spain and Italy); and by delaying the commencement of prison sentences (as in Germany and Czech Republic). Steps like these have contributed to reducing prison populations by thousands (e.g. Italy 7,000 and France 10,000).

Sadly, not all countries have taken these steps, including those with serious overcrowding problems.

Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Sweden have taken no steps towards reducing the use of imprisonment and others, like Greece, appear to be waiting for Covid-19 to spread through prisons before acting.

There are also concerns that prisoner release schemes aren't working where they require electronic tags to be used due to a lack of these tags (as in the Netherlands).

Countries which have merely delayed people starting their prison sentences may end up dealing with a future spike in prisoner numbers.

While some sentenced prisoners have been released, pre-trial detainees have been all but ignored.

Despite being presumed innocent, this group - which makes up a third and more of the prison population in many member states – has not been included in release schemes.

In fact, delays to trials, caused by court closures, mean people are likely to be detained longer pre-trial.

Most countries have tried to keep the courts open for emergency detention hearings, but these often rely on untested remote technology which may be detrimental to defendants.

The fact that many imprisoned defendants can't meet with their lawyers during the lock-down is also making things much harder. Much greater efforts are needed to keep accused people out of detention wherever possible.

What is life like for those who remain in Europe's prisons? In the absence of clear, uniform minimum standards, the situation varies significantly.

No visiting

One common concern is the increased isolation experienced by detainees.

One of the first steps taken by many Member States in response to Covid-19 was to prohibit prison visits (e.g. Belgium, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Slovenia) and place new prisoners in isolation (e.g. Belgium, Ireland, Austria).

While understandable, these steps have caused great anxiety to prisoners and their families, resulting in prison riots in some places.

Imagine the horror of being afraid for the health of your loved ones but having almost no means of contact with them.

Prisoners are also struggling to access their lawyers, complaint mechanisms (if for example they are victims of violence, all too common in prisons in normal times), and external support from therapists and faith representatives.

There are some green shoots of good practice emerging to help address these concerns.

Tentative efforts are being made to introduce technologies to allow for virtual visits (e.g. Belgium, Austria and Sweden) and distribute free mobile phones to detainees (Spain). Austria has already started to relax restrictions on visits.

There is also real concern that the physical well-being of prisoners in Europe is not being protected even though states have a clear obligation to do so by providing preventive medicine, adequate sanitary conditions and medical treatment.

Evidence from countries like the USA, UK and France all demonstrate the risk of Covid-19 spreading in prisons.

Many European prisons already suffered from systemic overcrowding, poor conditions and unsatisfactory health services when the pandemic struck.

Without significant investment and major reductions in prisoner numbers, it is hard to believe that effective preventive steps are being taken to protect the right to life and to health of prisoners and prison staff: such as Covid-19 testing, access to water and hygiene products.

A lack of transparency, however, makes it almost impossible to assess what safeguarding measures are being taken and in most member states, independent on-site monitoring of prisons has ceased, limiting independent oversight of places of detention.

Now, more than ever, we need to find creative ways to shed light on what is happening in Europe's prisons.

Of course, these are exceptional times with EU countries facing many grave challenges.

But prisoners are amongst the most vulnerable to this virus and they are reliant on governments to protect them. We know that this pandemic is having an enormous death toll, that it's ravaging our economies.

By protecting our prisoners we can, however, ensure that at least we emerge with our humanity intact.

Successful prisoner release schemes may even help us emerge with a prison estate which has been right-sized and with a healthier attitude to imprisonment.

Author bio

Jago Russell is chief executive of Fair Trials.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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