The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the dangers of prolonged isolation and the spread of disease in closed places. While European prisons have not been entirely absent from the news during the pandemic – there were the March 2020 riots in Italy , for instance, or the Belgian inmates who made thousands of masks – the management of the public health crisis within these institutions has rarely been the subject of in-depth analysis.
The pandemic quickly became part of the “everyday crisis” that constitutes life for Europe’s prisoners, and, just as rapidly, questions began to be asked about the anti-Covid measures being enacted within prisons. In order to shed light on the management of the pandemic from a European perspective, the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) collected statistical data from more than 30 European countries, for a collaborative survey involving 12 media outlets from 9 different countries.
While Europe’s incarceration rate has been falling for years , in January 2020 there were a total of 1,528,343 prisoners in 51 (out of 52) of the Council of Europe prison administrations. In the European Union, only ten of the 27 Member States had an above-average incarceration rate.
Cases inside increase with the number of cases outside
In the first part of the investigation, we discovered that the number of Covid-19 infections among detainees follows the overall trend in the general population. Some countries, such as Cyprus, France and Hungary, do not follow this rule, which strongly suggests that anti-Covid measures as well as vaccination inside prisons have averted catastrophe. However, most of these measures and their perceived consequences have been controversial: late implementation, limited effectiveness, questionable impact on human rights, among other things.
Despite the increased vulnerability of the prison population, they were not necessarily given privileged access to vaccines, as Dominique Simonnot , France’s Comptroller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL), points out. “When the vaccination campaign began, we asked that staff and prisoners be vaccinated as a priority,” Simonnot explains. The presence of a virus such as Covid-19 in an enclosed place like a prison can quickly deteriorate, “as was the case in Tours last spring,” said Simonnot. On 9 March 2021, an outbreak was detected in the prison in Tours , central France. 65 cases were identified among the detainees, the largest cluster ever recorded in the establishment. Eventually, almost half of the prison population contracted Covid-19. Requests for priority vaccination of prisoners were not heeded in France, nor in some of its neighbours.
In 2021, the vaccination of inmates is still not complete, though it is progressing – in Spain, for example (where 86.14 percent of detainees have received two doses), or Ireland (95 percent, one dose) and Hungary (79.47 percent, two doses). Yet the