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Life in carceral facilities has changed a lot since the COVID-19 outbreak took off. Yet little data has been made public about the spread of the coronavirus in carceral facilities. Data collected by 12 newsrooms in the European Data Journalism Network, coordinated by Deutsche Welle, shows that the effort to keep the infection under control in detention institutions came at a high cost.
Prisoners found themselves more isolated than ever: visits and education activities were suspended, vaccination campaigns were delayed, while overcrowding put the most vulnerable at risk.
The issue affects all society, because if you’re not protecting prisons, you’re not protecting the community.
More than half a million people were incarcerated in Europe in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisons are an ideal breeding ground for viruses: overcrowded, with cramped living arrangements and often poor hygiene conditions. Moreover, many incarcerated people have multiple health risk factors.
EDJNet’s data unit has collected data from 32 European countries that show how many cases and deaths were reported in prisons, how vaccinations progressed and what measures were taken to curb the spread of the virus.
Kira Schacht (Deutsche Welle, coordinator)
Prisons make fertile breeding grounds for viruses, yet administrations have revealed little about Covid-19 cases, deaths and vaccinations in Europe’s prisons. Data from 32 countries show the pandemic’s impact on prisons.
In many European countries, containing the spread of Covid-19 has come at the price of human rights. European prisoners have had to endure extended isolation, suspended visiting hours, and the cancellation of training and recreational activities.
An interview with Alessio Scandurra, director of the European Prison Observatory, to understand the impact of the pandemic on European prisons, in terms of both healthcare and opportunities for inmates.
Aurélie, 27, spent several years in prison. Maxime, 35, was an inmate in the Paris region, where the overcrowding rate is 160%. Like 13,000 other prisoners, he got out thanks to early-release measures enacted between March and May 2020. They told us their stories.
While the poor state of French prisons led many to fear a serious health crisis in the wake of Covid-19, the worst of those fears have not materialised. However, the drastic lockdown measures have done nothing to benefit the mental health of detainees. Nor have they led to any serious reevaluation of the system itself.
"The epidemic has been contained at the cost of enormous sacrifices for France’s prison population", says Dominique Simonnot, French chief prisons inspector.
Cramped, often unhygienic, and already characterised by numerous restrictions, many prisons in Europe were hit hard by the pandemic. In Italy, where prison facilities are among the most overcrowded in the EU, the pandemic aggravated a number of preexisting systemic problems.
Football, the gym, personal visits, all came to an abrupt end in Hungarian prisons as the coronavirus outbreak hit. Since then, prisoners and relatives have taken to Skype. The lack of face-to-face meetings has been offset by the fact that the great majority of prisoners have been vaccinated.
During the first months of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in Greek prisons appeared to have been limited. Today it is estimated that one in three inmates has contracted coronavirus, despite the fact that correctional facilities were operating under a strict lockdown. What went wrong?
Overcrowding, abuse of the minimum personal space of prisoners, hospitalization without segregation of patients, crowded quarantine, lack of medical staff and health measures, delayed vaccination - these are just some of the causes that lead to the virus’s spread.
The Hungarian prison system has undergone a significant transformation in recent years: prison capacity has been expanded and institutions have been modernised. But imprisonment is only one form of punishment.
The spread of coronavirus in Greek prisons was 1.4 times faster than in the general population during July-February 2022. The occupancy rate increased during the pandemic, and one in three prisoners is estimated to have contracted the coronavirus to date.