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What do approaches from across the world tell us about coronavirus and prisons?

By Sara Chitseko:

As coronavirus takes hold across the UK, many of us will have to self-isolate in the very near future. As a society, we must ensure we are looking out for the most vulnerable. It is no secret that prisons and detention centres in England and Wales are overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe. On Wednesday, an inmate at HMP Manchester was confirmed to have the virus. Self-isolation simply isn't an option for people in prison, soap is often hard to obtain and hand sanitizer is frequently considered contraband (due to alcohol content). We must come together to demand that the government ensures those that are incarcerated have their health needs addressed.

We can look to countries from across the world to see how best to respond to the pandemic, including when it comes to combating the viruses spread in prisons. At present, Iran is considered the epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East. As part of their response to combating it, they have temporarily released more than 85,000 people from prisons (Sky News, 2020). This will not only help prevent the spread of the virus in prisons, but helps protect the health of the general public too. Thousands of incarcerated people, their family, friends, and staff move in and out of prisons every day. Without the sanitary conditions needed to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons, keeping inmates inside essentially creates a breeding ground for the virus to spread throughout prisons, which in turn, will result in it spreading further through the rest of society too.

In other areas of the world, we can see how approaches to preventing the transmission of coronavirus have caused more harm than good. In Italy, 12 people in prisons have died and 50 inmates escaped in connection to riots which broke out due to the suspension of visitation rights (The Independent, 2020). Whilst this sanction could be seen to help reduce the spread of the virus, the impact it can have is limited given that staff would still be coming in and out of the prison every day.

In Brazil, an estimated 1500 people escaped from four semi-open prisons due to the postponement of their Easter prison break (The Guardian, 2020). This only serves as an additional punishment to those that are already incarcerated, often without access to adequate healthcare. With clear social upheaval in both Italy and Brazil at a time of already heightened tensions, it is important that approaches to address the spread of coronavirus prioritise health first, rather than punishment. This is true now as the pandemic peaks, but should also be at the forefront of policy moving forward.

In times of crisis, it becomes clear who society deems the "worthy" and "unworthy" sick. In the US, the New York state response to coronavirus has included producing its own sanitiser made by those in prison for an average of 65 cents an hour (The Guardian, 2020). Given that the sanitiser is considered contraband, it is highly unlikely that the people in prison who make it, will even be able to use it. Worse still, New York state will profit off the labour of the people in prison that are essentially providing vital sanitary products for the rest of the population.

Writing in the Guardian, Dr Frances Ryan explains how, "Public health crises are not equal-opportunity events: the poorest, most marginalised and disabled are generally worst affected, while the wealthy, connected and healthy are able to cushion themselves" (Ryan, 2020). This includes those that are in prison who are unable to take adequate precautions to protect themselves. A group of human rights and legal organisations released a letter demanding the government immediately release all those who are detained in detention centres (BID, 2020). The same must apply for those in prison. The government must take action to ensure that they have there health needs addressed, or better, consider temporarily releasing people, so that they can self-isolate at home. Afterall, if coronavirus gets into prisons, it will only be a matter of time before it gets out.


BID, 2020. BID Joins 10 Organisations Calling For Release Of Immigration Detainees Due To Coronavirus Threat | Bail For Immigration Detainees. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 March 2020].

The Guardian, 2020. 'Come Back Monday, OK?' Hundreds Of Prisoners Escape In Brazil Amid Covid-19 Anger. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 March 2020].

The Guardian, 2020. Vulnerable Prisoners 'Exploited' To Make Coronavirus Masks And Hand Gel. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 March 2020].

The Independent, 2020. Twelve Inmates Dead As Italy Prisoners Riot Over Coronavirus Lockdown Measures. [online] The Independent. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 March 2020].

Ryan, F., 2020. Coronavirus Hits Ill And Disabled People Hardest, So Why Is Society Writing Us Off? | Frances Ryan. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 March 2020].

Sky News, 2020. Coronavirus: Iran Frees 85,000 Prisoners To Combat Spread Of Infection. [online] Sky News. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 March 2020].

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