Irish Penal Reform Trust

CoE: An evaluation of the medium-term impact of COVID-19 on prison populations

10th November 2020

The Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) study “An evaluation of the medium-term impact of COVID-19 on prison populations”, based on 35 European penal administrations in European countries, shows that between January 1st and September 15th of this year, the average incarceration rate fell by 4.6%, from 121.4 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants to 115.8. This decrease in prison populations follows a number of efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the early release of prisoners.

From the data provided by each administration, 143,000 prisoners were released between March and September from the following countries: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, both administrations of Spain, Turkey, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. However, Turkey, which in January had the second largest prison population in Europe, released the vast majority of these prisoners with 114,460 prisoners, almost 40% of its penal population. In addition to Turkey, countries with high numbers of releases included Catalonia (Spain) (23%), Cyprus (23%), France (17%) and Portugal (17%).

This Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) study analyses trends in European prison populations during the first nine months of the year, using four points in time as reference: 1st January, 15th April, 15th June and 15th September. By April 15th, the incarceration rate had fallen by over 4% in 17 prison administrations, including Portugal and Italy, and it remained stable in 29 prison administrations, including Ireland and England and Wales. Interestingly, Sweden was the only country to experience an increased incarceration rate. This would suggest that lockdowns contributed to the decrease of prison populations, as Sweden did not lockdown like other European countries. This positive trend continued; on June 15th, the number of countries with lower prison population rates than in January had risen to 27, while 14 showed stable trends and only two, Sweden and Greece, had higher incarceration rates in June than in January. In contrast, during the summer (and without lockdowns), the decline in prison population numbers was reversed in 12 countries (Andorra, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) and stabilized in 22, while Bulgaria and Montenegro were the only two prison administrations with a lower rate in September than in June.

From the 52 prison administrations in the 47 Council of Europe member states, 35 states answered all three of the COVID-19 questionnaires, which corresponds to a participation rate of 67%. However, several countries did not answer at least one of the three questionnaires; Ireland being one of them. As a result, the only information offered on Ireland’s prison population is as follows:

  • Total Population: 4, 963, 839
  • Total number of prisoners on 01/1/20: 3,950
  • Total number of prisoners on 15/4/20: 3,847
  • Prison Population rate on 01/1/20: 79.6
  • Prison Population rate on 15/4/20:  77.5

From the data provided, this study concluded that Ireland was among the 25 prison administrations to release prisoners as a preventive measure against COVID-19. In addition, the prison population rate on April 15th remained stable (between -4 and 4%) when compared to the rate on January 1st 2020.

Overall, prison density decreased in the majority of prison administrations, with the prison population rates by mid-September generally lower than at the beginning of the year. This supports the concept that the year of the pandemic had strong effects on prison populations; through both the preventive releases of prisoners and, indirectly, through a decrease of crime and, ultimately, decreased entries into prison. In terms of the virus itself, it appears to have spread among prisoners and prison staff at a slightly slower pace than among the general population. For example, by September 15th, Latvia reported no infections among prisoners nor among staff, Slovenia and Cyprus reported infections only among prisoners, and Estonia, Finland, Hungary and Northern Ireland reported infection only among staff members.

The study concludes that the observed European trends can be explained by combining three key factors:

1. A decrease in the operations of the criminal justice system: the judiciary was restricted just like the rest of the population, which led to fewer sentences imposed by the courts. As the lockdowns ended, the courts gradually started imposing sentences again.

2. The release of prisoners as a preventive measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

3. The lockdowns produced a crime drop as it reduced opportunities, which led to less offending and consequently to fewer arrests and ultimately fewer people entering detention.

Read ‘An evaluation of the medium-term impact of COVID-19 on prison populations’ in full on the Council of Europe website here.

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