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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Prison and the Pandemic Combatting the Spread of Covid-19

19 May 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Ciara O’Connell, Sarah Curristan and Sophie van der Valk, discuss their in-prison research on the experiences of people living and working in prison in combatting the spread of Covid-19.

Ciara O’Connell, Sarah Curristan and Sophie van der Valk, members of the ERC-funded project, Prisons: the Rule of Law, Accountability and Rights (PRILA), School of Law, Trinity College Dublin.

Prisons pose a unique and extremely challenging environment for the management of COVID-19. Not only are prisons closed institutions, they are also generally under-funded and under-resourced, making it difficult to implement preventive and protective measures required to prevent the spread of disease. Governments have a duty of care to protect the health of people in custody at a standard that is equivalent to the care received in the community. However, prison healthcare systems face challenges providing treatment for a population living in confined conditions for prolonged periods of time and with significant underlying health conditions. These systems are not well-equipped to deal with the repercussions of a COVID-19 outbreak. Measures identified to combat the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing and increased hygienic practices, are difficult to implement in prisons, specifically because they are often overcrowded and may lack the resources needed to provide sanitation materials and personal protective equipment.

Strategies to combat the spread of COVID-19 in prison are numerous, and effective to different extents. As it stands, Ireland has not seen a case of COVID-19 in its prisoner population. However, COVID-19 has had a massive impact on prisons across the globe. As of 18 May 2020, an estimated 41,126 people in prison contracted the disease, and more than 800 had died from COVID-19. While the threat of COVID-19 in prison may seem far removed from the challenges currently facing society, prison health is public health. The WHO has identified the need to protect the health and well-being of people living and working in prison as a means to reduce the risk of outbreaks and subsequent demands they may place on wider healthcare services in the community. And, while we think of prisons as places designed to hold people in, the prison walls are indeed porous. The majority of people in prison will be released and as such they will be able to contract and/or transmit disease in their communities. It is essential that people released from prison be healthy, and that they be set up to remain healthy upon their release.

As prisons respond to the threat and impact of COVID-19, new regulations are imposed. These include the release of people from prison to combat overcrowding. Alongside this strategy, there have been restrictions placed on contact with the outside and the confinement of people in prison. However, there is a simultaneous need to ensure these restrictions do not impede on the human rights of people in prison. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture standards require governments ensure any restrictive measure taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 “have a legal basis and be necessary, proportionate, respectful of human dignity and restricted in time.” This balance, between regulations and rights, requires prison services to innovate and implement strategies that at one point may have been deemed impossible or impractical.

Looking at Ireland for example, all family visits to prisons have been cancelled, and in response the Irish Prison Service has coordinated virtual visits. Other regulations, such as the ‘cocooning’ of vulnerable populations, restricted access to activities and work, and imposed solitary confinement present a threat to human rights standards in prison. Questions arise, such as, how can people in prison who present with COVID-19 symptoms be provided with adequate healthcare, meaningful human contact and exercise? What is the impact of these additional measures on the mental health of those in prison? And, what happens to all the people who do not present with COVID-19 or its symptoms? Is the response to COVID-19 in prison to lock everyone up?

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

The balance between prison regulations and upholding human rights standards in prisons is a slippery one, especially because prisons are by-design hidden institutions. The general public knows very little about prisons and their operations, making the role of inspection and oversight all the more important in times such as these. Oversight of prisons is key to understanding the impact of the threat of COVID-19 in prisons. The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture has called on national inspection bodies to continue visiting prisons and to increase collection and scrutiny of data, so that we may better examine treatment and conditions put in place to respond to COVID-19. The PRILA project, based out of TCD’s School of Law, has similarly called for prison services to ensure diligent record-keeping as a way to ensure transparency and assist monitoring bodies in examining COVID-19 responses. Civil society organisations, such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust, play a key role in pressuring states to adopt strategies that are measured, targeted, and where necessary, temporary in nature.

The impact of COVID-19 has forced us all to re-think the way we do things and go about our lives. The regulations implemented in response to COVID-19, both behind and outside of the prison walls, illuminate pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities in our communities. In balancing rights and regulations in response to COVID-19, an opportunity arises to think creatively about how we might protect and grow a healthier society, in all its forms, in the aftermath of this crisis.

Prisons: the rule of law, accountability and rights (PRILA) is an ERC-Funded project based in Trinity's School of Law, which examines accountability, the inspection and oversight of prisons. It seeks to provide an understanding of how inspection, oversight and accountability operates from the point of view of prison staff, people in prison, and staff of accountability bodies. PRILA uses legal and socio-legal research methods to understand how inspection, oversight and accountability is regulated and experienced, as well as its effects. See here for more information.

Image: Ciara O’Connell, Sarah Curristan and Sophie van der Valk, members of the ERC-funded project, Prisons: the Rule of Law, Accountability and Rights (PRILA), School of Law, Trinity College Dublin, with project Principal Investigator Professor Mary Rogan.


Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Literature and the Pandemic with Eve Patten (13 May 2020)

Distress and Disease at Sea with Killian O'Brien (30 April 2020)

Adapting in a Time of Crisis with Melanie Ní Dhuinn (28 April 2020)

Power in the Name of Emergency with Róisín Costello & Conor Casey (21 April 2020)

Human Rights in a Time of Crisis with Donna Lyons (14 April 2020)

Solidarity in a Time of Crisis with Rory Montgomery (6 April 2020)

Art in a time of Pandemic with Rita Duffy (1 April 2020)

Leadership in a time of Crisis with Mary Doyle (25 March 2020)

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