REPORT: Overcrowded prisons are Covid-19 danger zones

The Kenya Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are working with the Kenya Prison Services to fortify prison facilities across the country from the threat of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). PHOTO/Courtesy.

At least three in every ten prisoners in the world is currently detained without trial or formal sentencing by the courts.

This is according to a report published this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs (UNODC).

Among the measures proposed to remedy the situation are the identification of alternatives to custodial sentences for petty and nonviolent offenders, as well as the improvement of case management and the judiciary’s capacity to prosecute cases fast and efficiently.

UNODC is also advocating for enhanced crime prevention systems in addition to the replacement of “excessively punitive corrective measures” to address lawlessness that have resulted in excessive imprisonment which leads to over crowded prisons.

The report decried the high numbers of inmates still languishing in lockdown without being tried or formally sentenced.

“While the retention of alleged offenders should be a measure of last resort, many prisoners are detained without a sentence,” the report reads in part.

Statistics also show that the incarcerated population has ballooned by a quarter or 25 percent in the last two decades.

“The global share of detainees yet to be sentenced in the prison population has not changed much in the past 20 years, ranging between 29 and 31 percent.

This suggests that little global progress has been made in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16.3 on access to justice,” the report states.

According to the report, prison systems in almost half of all countries with available data between 2014 and 2019 were operating at more than 100 percent of intended capacity.

“In one out of five countries with available data, prisoners outnumbered the prison capacity by more than 150 percent,” the report says.

At least 18 percent of countries have an inmate population that is higher than 150 percent of total prison capacity.

Another 29 percent of countries in the survey are occupied at between 100 and 150 percent capacity.

The remaining 53 percent of countries in the study have an average inmate population at less than 50 percent or half capacity.

UNODC released the report in anticipation of Nelson Mandela International Day, which is marked on July 18 ever year.

The day is marked to remember and celebrate world’s most famous political prisoner of all time.

UNODC’s groundbreaking report provides comprehensive prison data on a global scale and attempts to analyze the long-term trends of imprisonment. 

Compared to the global population that grew by 21 per cent, between 2000 and 2019, UNODC data shows that the number of prisoners rose by more than 25 per cent globally. 

“By the end of this period, 11.7 million people had been incarcerated – a population comparable in size to countries such as Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia,” reads the UN website write-up on the report. 

The current estimate represents an increase of more than 25 percent from the year 2000, when there were around 9.3 million people imprisoned globally.

“This trend is slightly higher than worldwide population growth, recorded at 21 percent  between 2000 and 2019,” the report goes on.

The latest data also shows there were around 152 prisoners for every 100,000 people by the end of 2019.  

In a worrying spike, countries and regions such as Australia, New Zealand and Latin America have chalked up a 68 per cent growth in locked up populations during the last 20 years.  

On the other hand, Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern America, and Eastern Europe have witnessed a long-term decrease in imprisonment rates of up to 27 per cent. 

Men bear the brunt of incarceration. According to the study, an estimated 93 per cent of detainees around the globe are male.  

Women are also not spared from the ravages of prison, with the number of women behind bars shooting up at a by 33 per cent compared to 25 per cent for men over the 20 year period. 

“The female share of the global prison population has increased, from 6.1 percent in 2000 to 7.2 percent in 2019.

The increase in the female share of prisoners has, however, not been uniform across regions.

Europe has recorded the largest increase in the female share of prisoners from 4.2 percent in 2000 to 6.5 percent in 2019 ,” the report reads.

UODC attributes the increase to “a trend driven by a faster decline of male prisoners relative to female prisoners, primarily in Eastern European countries”.

In contrast, Africa has recorded persistently low female prisoner shares of around 2.9 percent over the last two decades.

To produce the report, the UNODC, which safeguards the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or the Nelson Mandela Rules, also examined data on overcrowding in prisons.  

With varying rates reported in regions across the globe, prison systems in around half of all countries with available data are operating at more than 100 per cent of their intended capacity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue of overcrowding in prisons into sharp focus.

“Prisoners in a half of all countries are held in overcrowded prison systems where COVID-19 prevention measures are difficult to implement,” UNODC said in a tweet on its website.

“Rule 12 and 13 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners must be guaranteed,” said the UN agency.

A global analysis of government and open source data shows that nearly 550,000 prisoners in 122 countries had been infected with COVID-19 by May 2020. 

In 47 countries, nearly 4,000 people have died of the viral disease in prison.

As part of the measures to reduce infection rates, some prisons have reduced recreation time, work opportunities, and visitation rights.

All these are important essential pillars of the rehabilitation programmes in correctional facilities.  

COVID-19 prevention measures are often hard to implement in detention centres, especially overcrowded ones.

In a bid to reduce the infection rates, some countries opted to temporarily release large numbers of people in custody, with a bias for those inmates serving sentences for non-violent offences. 

On April 2, 2020, Kenya released nearly 4,000 inmates as part of measures to ward off a COVID-19 outbreak in the country’s prisons.

Kenya’s commissioner general of prisons Wycliffe Ogalo said the move was intended to protect the general inmate population from infection.

“With a view of protecting the prison population against the coronavirus, the Kenya Prisons Service has released 3,837 prisoners and remandees in concurrence with the National Council on the Administration of Justice,” he said in a statement.

“The decision is thus aimed at achieving the recommended one-meter social distancing within our facilities as part of the progressive review of our strategies in combating the global pandemic,” read his signed statement.

Since March 2020, approximately six per cent of the estimated global prison population or some 700,000 inmates have been authorized or considered eligible for at least temporary release through COVID emergency mechanisms adopted by 119 Member States.

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