Coronavirus in Prisons, a Global Perspective: Tracking policy responses, releases, and riots

Dr. Olga Zeveleva, a sociologist on the European Research Council project Gulag Echoes (University of Helsinki), is building a database of responses to COVID-19 in prison systems worldwide. Dr. Sofia Gavrilova, a geographer funded by the Christ Church Research Fund (University of Oxford), is mapping these trends. The database and map are works in progress and will be updated as the situation evolves (please see explanatory note on sources and limitations at the bottom of this entry). 

This is the first post in a series of reports on coronavirus in prisons by researchers on the Gulag Echoes research page. In the post, Olga Zeveleva takes a look at how the coronavirus crisis is playing out in the prison systems of different countries.

Coronavirus-related prison riots are shaking penal systems around the world. At least 62 incarcerated people in 11 countries around the world have died protesting or trying to escape the threat of facing a pandemic behind prison bars. Policymakers in different countries are scrambling to draw up plans of action for places of detention. The way in which national governments and local prison administrations are tackling COVID-19 has massive implications for the lives of incarcerated people, as well as for public health both at the local and international levels.

Global media have begun reporting on major changes in some countries, with two stories drawing particular attention: 85 000 people were released from detention in Iran, and 23 people tragically lost their lives in a coronavirus-related prison riot in Colombia. But what can we conclude about how penal systems around the world are reacting to the pandemic? Based on the data I have gathered to date (31 March, 2020) on 76 countries, I can offer two preliminary conclusions:

    • First, while the most popular response has been to impose various limits on visitation rights, other policies vary greatly. Emerging clusters of countries implementing similar policies defy expectations based on traditional assumptions about similar political regimes or regional affinities. 
    • Second, a single nation-state can implement several differing policies all at once. Trends for greater isolation of prisoners from the outside world can coexist with an effort to release prisoners. Moreover, there can be variation by region within one country. 


Map: Sofia Gavrilova.
Click image to enlarge.
This is a work in progress and will be updated. Last update: 31 March, 2020.

In the sections below, I discuss why the health of prisoners locally is important for global public health, and how prisoners are particularly vulnerable in a pandemic. I then review and detail the current policy trends in prison responses to COVID-19. This report offers only a preliminary look at emerging trends, and lays some groundwork for more in-depth analysis in the months and years to come.

Every local prison is important for global public health

According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), at least 10 million men, women, and children were incarcerated in penal institutions around the world in 2018. These populations are highly vulnerable during a pandemic. Yet this is also not a static group, as people enter and leave penal systems every day. Each year, an estimated 30 million people are released from custody globally.

Jails or pre-trial detention centres are especially transient. These are a type of penal institution that usually hold people who have not yet been convicted, who often stay there for shorter periods of time than those incarcerated in prisons. A prison holds a more stable population serving sentences longer periods of time. The Marshall Project and The New York Times found that in the USA alone, more than 200 000 people enter jails each week across the country, and the same number of people are released every week. Penal institutions are thus an integral part of local public health landscapes, and in the context of a pandemic, every local prison or jail is also part of global public health.

Vulnerability of prisoners

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable in health crises. Evidence from other diseases such as TB and past pandemics such as the 1918 Influenza outbreak implies that if COVID-19 contaminates prison or a jail, it will:

Policy trends

Two major trends are taking place with regard to prisons: first, states are closing off prisoners from the outside world, and second, some states are moving to release prisoners. 

Responses have varied across countries, but can be grouped in the following way (these are not mutually exclusive responses, and can coexist within one penal system):

    1. Limitations on visitation rights (the most popular measure, with at least 66 countries imposing some form of visitation limitations – see discussion on variation in such measures below);
    2. Releases or temporary releases of prisoners (18 countries, with 5 more poised to implement this measure in the coming days or weeks);
    3. Changes of prison terms to house arrest (4 countries: Brazil, Israel, Poland, Turkey);
    4. Postponing incarceration (4 countries and parts of the U.S.: Austria, Finland, France, Germany, the state of Colorado in the U.S.).
    5. Use of prison labour to produce sanitation products. At least 9 countries have begun to use prison labor to produce medical face masks or hand sanitizer. This includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Taiwan, Thailand, Serbia, and some U.S. states, including Indiana, Iowa, New York, and Texas. Officials in Russia have called for the start of such measures as well. 

Against this backdrop, prison riots are erupting worldwide. Prisoners are also protesting unsanitary and cramped conditions in fear that this will amplify the effects of the pandemic if someone is infected with COVID-19 within prison walls. In at least 11 countries, prisoners have escaped penal institutions, literally running for their lives. Prison breaks have taken place in Italy, Spain, Venezuela, Syria, Chad, Uganda, Iran, Thailand, and the USA (Washington and South Dakota). In mid-March, an estimated 1 500 people escaped from four prisons in Brazil.

Table: Policies by country. Last updated: 1 April

Limitations on visitation rights (at least 66 countries and regions)

Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Burkina Faso, parts of Canada (Ontario), Cayman Islands, Chad, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, parts of the UK, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine, most of the USA, Uzbekistan.


Releases or temporary releases of prisoners (18 countries, with 5 more poised to implement this measure)

Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, some states in the USA (California, New Jersey, New York, Washington).

Poised to release: Albania, Greece, India, Nepal, Turkey, parts of the UK, parts of the USA (Iowa, Montana and possibly others; means of release vary greatly)

Changes of prison terms to house arrest (4 countries) Brazil, Israel, Poland, Turkey
Postponing incarceration (4 countries and parts of the U.S.) Austria, Finland, France, Germany, the state of Colorado in the U.S.
Use of prison labour to produce medical masks and hand sanitizer (at least 9 countries)

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Taiwan, Thailand, Serbia, and some U.S. states, including Indiana, Iowa, New York, and Texas.

Officials in Russia have called for the start of such measures.

Variation in types of “releases”

Many media outlets are reporting on “releases of prisoners,” but a “release” can, in fact, take many forms:

      • Amnesties or pardons have been implemented in Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, and Iran. In Syria, officials did not specify that the amnesty had anything to do with COVID-19. In Iran, 10 000 people were pardoned for the Iranian New Year on the same day as 85 000 other prisoners were released specifically to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons (see “temporary releases” below).
      • Early releases of prisoners are often implemented through courts reevaluating individual cases, or for non-violent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. Early releases are taking place in Italy, Germany, Azerbaijan, France, Nepal, and some states in the USA (mostly focusing on jails, not prisons).
      • Temporary releases have been used in Albania, some states in the USA, and Iran (85 000 prisoners have been temporarily released in Iran, as mentioned above).

It is important to note that many discussions about releases of prisoners (especially in Egypt, the USA, and Portugal) focus on jails and pre-trial detention centres as opposed to prisons.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced issued recommendations to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to explore releasing certain at-risk prisoners to house arrest, focusing on non-violent prisoners currently held in jails. In the United States, most of the jail population depends on state-level policies, not federal regulations. This makes centralised solutions difficult to formulate and implement. County commissioners,  mayors, sheriffs, and police officers are considering a plethora of ways to reduce their local jail populations. Limitations on visits have been imposed across the country. New Jersey, New York, California, and Washington, for example, have released prisoners. Iowa and Montana are poised for releasing those incarcerated in the coming weeks and moths.

Limitations on visitation rights

The most pronounced trend around the world is isolating prisoners from their families and from the outside world by limiting visitation rights. According to news reports, prisoners who have begun riots have commonly cited visitation limits as a reason for their protest. Yet cutting back on visits has also taken many different forms, from suspending only weekend visits but keeping weekday visits in Portugal, to limiting visits to two people per prisoner per visit in Bangladesh, to suspending all visits for family and lawyers like in Ethiopia and Israel (the latter allows lawyers to visit only in urgent cases, leaving more room for selective treatment by the administration). In Mexico, for example, particular categories of visitors are not admitted: these include children under 12 years and persons over the age of 60. Visits have also been suspended for old or vulnerable prisoners in Mexico.

In some cases, prisons have offered increased access to alternative means of communication by phone or  video chat (Austria and Australia). In Austria, prisoners who do not have the funds to call their families will receive financial support for phone calls from the state. In Australia, the State of New South Wales announced the provision of 600 digital devices to allow prisoners to communicate with those on the outside of the prison using video chat. Malaysian prisons also allow for longer telephone calls if the family pays for them, and the state is due to distribute prepaid phone cards among prisoners.

It is difficult to track the implementation of such measures, and whether they are evenly applied across institutions. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that local prison officials may apply the new rights selectively on a person-by-person basis.

Concluding remarks

First, the nation-states included in this analysis thus far are not easily categorised into groups, and there is no obvious clustering of responses by region or by political regime type. This surprising trend may hold true for other policies beyond penal systems in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. By watching responses to coronavirus unfold, we will be learning about how national systems deal with health care, labour, and protection of vulnerable groups. Prisons are only one part of that bigger picture. It will be crucial to track these changes over time.

Second, I can see that one country can follow several policies all at once. There are not clearly divisible “more open” and “more isolation-prone” prison systems at the present time in the crisis. Moreover, there can be variation between regions within one country. This could signal the absence of a broader strategy at early stages of the crisis, or heavily localised responses to the pandemic depending on particular contexts. 

Third, at the initial stages of the crisis, I can see many similar managerial practical responses in countries with drastically different political systems and human rights regimes. I expect that implementation and further development of responses may depend in part on legislative and civil oversight of prison systems, as well as on media coverage of issues relating to prisons.

The preliminary data points presented here leave us with many questions to explore. How will differing political regimes label different kinds of prisoner releases (amnesties, pardons, early releases), and why? How will top-down policies be met with on-the-ground implementation and informal practices? Are we seeing a new kind of transnational prison riot emerge in response to a global crisis, or have such protests taken place simultaneously in the prisons of different countries before? How do local penal histories affect the ways in which different countries are responding to the pandemic currently? Will we see any consensus around “best practices” emerging in different clusters of countries with regard to penal policies? Will we witness a convergence of responses globally over time? 

Appendix: Methodology and sources

Note about “Prison riots and protests”

The protests and riots listed here have been described by journalists and NGOs as events relating specifically to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of the sources used here quote prisoners, their family members, or statements issued by prisoners that explain that motivations behind protests are related to coronavirus. For an analysis of the limitations of my sources, see section below.

Definitions of what constitutes a “prison riot,” as well as the very term, are contested in literature about prisons. The category “Prison riots and protests” used on this map includes various types of organised strikes among incarcerated people, as well as more violent and organised forms of protest. The “riots and protests” listed here all include forms of collective action among prisoners, but span a wide range of types of action: from the Rikers Island Jail strike in New York State in the USA and hunger strikes among a dozen prisoners in Lebanon’s Zahle prison, to the riot that ended in 23 tragic deaths in Bogota, Colombia.

One of the limitations of the method I used to identify a “prison riot” or “protest” is that I relied largely on information provided by NGOs and news sources, triangulating it where I could against other news sources and searches I conducted on social media (Twitter). Both the information available to journalists and NGO workers, and the language they employ when describing events in prison, have structured the selection of cases displayed on this map.

Note about sources and limitations

The map presents data points that have been reported on by journalists all over the world and by NGO workers as events relating to the coronavirus outbreak, unless otherwise specified in this text (see notes about amnesties in Syria and Iran above).

This map is limited by the availability and visibility of information on what is happening in prisons around the world. My reliance on online sources I am able to search and read, as well as the limits journalists and NGO workers face when reporting on prisons, has structured the information presented here. 

This map is only an approximation of the general directions taken in prison systems in different parts of the globe in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, our analysis of these trends is hampered by uneven transparency on prison policy and implementation from one prison to another all around the world.

The availability of information on prisons in different countries, as well as in different local contexts within each country, depends on a number of factors, including transparency of state and prison policy, as well as the strength of local monitoring bodies and civil society institutions. Therefore the breadth and depth of information we have on different prison systems can vary greatly from region to region, city to city, and prison to prison. 

In addition, while the map presented here is divided into nation-state units, we must remember that prisons can vary greatly within one country, region, or city. They can vary both by availability of information on that particular prison, as well as by the way in which state or regional policies are implemented on the ground within the prison walls. Another factor that is not presented in this visualisation is the way in which prisoners experience the implementation of coronavirus-related policies, or lack thereof.  

The major sources I have drawn from are listed below. I have relied largely on my own monitoring of online media (in English, Russian, German, French, and with the use of online translation services for websites in other languages), on NGO reports and their monitoring of global media, and particular searches using the keywords “prison,” “COVID,” “coronavirus” on Twitter and in Google News. Searches on Twitter have helped me to go beyond statements made by journalists and NGO workers, and I am thankful to those who are incarcerated and who are able provide us with insights on their experiences from within prison walls, like John J. Lennon. I was also greatly aided in my search for reports on prisons by my colleagues from all over the world (academics, lawyers, journalists, NGO workers). 

I am particularly grateful to Prison Insider for their list of news items by continent and summaries, and to the World Prison Brief for their curation of news relating to COVID-19 and prisons. The Marshall Project has inspired me with their visualisation tools and their close monitoring of the situations in prisons across the United States

Major sources:


3 Replies to “Coronavirus in Prisons, a Global Perspective: Tracking policy responses, releases, and riots”

  1. Thanks for your work and insight regarding the impact of Covid-19 in prisons and how different countries tried to manage the problem.
    I am writing from Italy and here we have experienced several prisons riots and clashes between inmates and police. Currently, I am concerned more on how the socio-economic crisis which Italy (and other countries) is facing will impact the penitentiary system and inmates’ life. If Coronavirus is the problem which the world is fighting now, the situation might be worse in the near future when the lack of financial sources will seriously affect penitentiary systems depriving inmates of basic services.
    We should also consider that in some countries democracy was substituted by a strong regime because of the fear of the virus and imprisoning people might become the government strategy to combat the opposition or freedom movements.

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