Irish Penal Reform Trust

Special SPACE I Report: Prisons and Prisoners in Europe in Pandemic Times

18th June 2020

A special SPACE I report on Prisons and Prisoners in Europe in Pandemic Times was recently published together with the 2019 SPACE II report. The Council of Europe and the University of Lausanne launched the SPACE I – COVID-19 project in order to measure and better understand the impacts of the pandemic on the prison population.

This report focused on the short-term impact of COVID-19 on the European prison population and it analysed prison trends from 1st January to 15th April 2020, which roughly includes the first month in which the virus started spreading in Europe (approximately mid-March to mid-April). Due to the short period covered by the report, results should be interpreted with caution.

The report finds that the effect the pandemic had on the imprisonment rate (rate of imprisonment per 100,000 population) varied across the European prison population, however, the vast majority of prison administration showed decreasing or stable prison population rates. Some countries, including France, Scotland (UK), Cyprus, Iceland, Norway and Northern Ireland (UK), showed a decrease of more than -4%. Other countries, including Croatia, England and Wales (UK), and Ireland, showed a stable trend in prison population rates, where rates remained between -4% and 4%. Sweden was the only country found to have seen an increase of more than 4% in its prison population.

When it comes to the percentage of inmates released as a preventive measure related to COVID-19, Ireland is noted as having released 12.1% of its prison population, compared to the total of prisoners on January 1st.

However, while Ireland's population rate was classed as ‘stable’ based on changes from January until mid-April, the prison population in Ireland has continued to fall since the final date measured in the study. As well as this, the 1st January start date does not lend itself well to capturing the true decrease in the prison population, as the Irish prison population reached a peak in early March, shortly before release measures were commenced.

According to the report, during this time period, more than 128,000 inmates were released in 20 member states as a preventative measure to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

As for cases of COVID-19 within prisons, only a few administrations were not affected (within the first month of the spread of the virus). Countries including Iceland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Malta and others, reported no infections, in either inmates or prison staff, where other countries including, Denmark, Italy and Scotland (UK) reported infections in both inmates and staff. Armenia, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Romania and others reported infections among staff only, whereas countries such as Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Slovenia and others reported infections among inmates only.

This report found that the countries that adopted preventative measures early, during the first month of lockdown appeared to be either:

  1. countries that are characterized by low levels of punitiveness (Nordic countries and the Netherlands) or;
  2. countries where the pandemic had a high impact on the general population and are also characterized by relatively high prison populations (Spain, Italy and France).

From the analysis of the prison population trends, this report suggested that the lockdown of European countries seems to have contributed to either decreasing or stable prison populations. Sweden, who did not introduce a countrywide lockdown, was the only country in this report to have seen an increase in the prison population.

By way of attempting to explain the stable or decreasing prison population rates, this report found three reasonable explanations:

  1. A crime drop —  based on situational-based criminological theories, lockdown reduced opportunities for crime, leading to less offences being committed and thus less arrests and less people entering pretrial detention.
  2. A decrease in Criminal Justice System activities — less sentences were imposed by the courts as magistrates were included in lockdown with the rest of the population.
  3. The release of inmates as a preventative measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Read Prisons and Prisoners in Europe in Pandemic Times: An evaluation of the short-term impact of the COVID-19 on prison populations in full here.

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