Irish Penal Reform Trust

TNI webinar: COVID-19 and the global fight against mass incarceration

3rd June 2020

On 3 June 2020, the Transnational Institute (TNI) hosted a webinar on ‘COVID-19 and the global fight against mass incarceration’. The webinar examined the drivers of mass incarceration globally, and how COVID-19 has exposed these issues. Five panellists discussed their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities in the penal system arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olivia Rope (Penal Reform International) discussed the global prison population, which is at its highest ever level with more than 11 million people in prison. She highlighted that prisons, globally, were in crisis before the pandemic. Only about 5% of the global prison population have been released from prison during the pandemic. She highlighted that an increase in the use of pre-trial detention, sentences for non-violent crimes and strict drug policies are big drivers of imprisonment, and that efforts need to be made to focus on rehabilitation and non-custodial sentences to reduce overcrowding.

Isabel Pereira (Dejusticia) discussed incarceration in Latin America. She explained that the three main drivers of incarceration are excessive use of pre-trial detention, custodial sentencing for drug offences, and increasingly long sentences being given. While some releases have occurred during the pandemic, those sentenced for drug offences have been excluded from many pandemic release programmes, and releases have been very slow, meaning that overcrowding cannot be effectively reduced.

Andrea James and Justine Moore (National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls) brought perspectives from the United States. They discussed their work on seeking clemency for girls and women in prison. They are amplifying this call during the pandemic. They discussed their goal to end mass imprisonment and move towards community-based approaches to justice.

Sabrina Mahtani (Advocaid Sierra Leone) highlighted the issue of overcrowding in many African prisons, driven by overuse of pre-trial detention and the criminalisation of petty crimes. 

Maidina Rahmawati (Institute of Criminal Justice Reform, Indonesia) provided insight on incarceration in Indonesia, where overcrowding is a serious issue. This is driven by punitive drug sentencing, overuse of pre-trial detention and an ineffective parole system. There have been releases of prisoners due to the pandemic, but there have been no targeted release policies for vulnerable prisoners. The reoffending rate of those released has been very low so far.

Overall, the use of custodial sentencing for drug and non-violent offences, as well as the overuse of pre-trial detention are major global drivers of incarceration. Release efforts to reduce overcrowding during the pandemic have not been drastic enough. However, the participants were hopeful that the pandemic could draw attention to these issues and inspire better policy going forward.

The full webinar is available on YouTube here.

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