21 July 2020

The impact of COVID-19 in prisons


People living in prisons and other places of detention are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Close proximity settings, and in some cases overcrowding, contribute to the spread of infectious diseases within the prison population as well as the people working there. So what measures are governments taking to minimise the occurrence of the disease in these settings and prevent large outbreaks of COVID-19? A working group study with scholars from several universities around the world is trying to answer these questions.

Picture of barbed wire

Text: Sara Almeida / Picture: Colourbox

On June 30th 2020 the CONVERGE Working Group on Prisons and Prisoners in COVID-19 shared their preliminary findings from media reports from Peru, Russia and the United States of America during the webinar "The impact of COVID-19 in prisons", organised by the Copenhagen Centre for Disaster Research and the School of Global Health. Scroll down to see a video of the entire webinar.

This working group comprises of researchers, advocates, and practitioners. Their objective is to understand the current situation and impact that COVID-19 is having on prisons and incarcerated individuals in countries around the world. They are currently examining how prison administrations - and larger society - are responding to the pandemic in these settings, in order to inform and provide evidence to support the international advocacy of their NGO partner, Penal Reform International towards improving criminal justice, as well as the health and wellbeing of incarcerated individuals and ultimately uphold their human rights.

Loic Le De, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology, presented an overview of the situation in Peru, Ksenia Chmutina, Senior Lecturer, Loughborough University, presented an overview of the situation in Russia and Stacie Merken, Assistant Professor, Indiana University South Bend and Carlee Purdam, Research Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University, presented the situation in the USA).

The case of Peru

Peru suffers from an overcrowded criminal system, with around 97,000 people incarcerated for a capacity of 40,000. It currently has the second highest percentage of prisoners with COVID-19 in Latin America, just after Brazil. As of June 10th 2020, among people living in prisons there were around 2,000 reported infections and 221 deaths, and among prison staff there were 700 infections and 17 deaths. A national report from 2019 highlighted that 4,761 incarcerated individuals were elderly and 11,536 suffered from chronic diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and diabetes, thus placing them in a vulnerable situation to COVID-19.

While the Peruvian government developed a range of policies to deal with COVID-19 in the country, little had been done to cater for individuals in prisons. Following pressure from prisoners (i.e. protests in four prisons), their families (i.e. petitions signed by relatives), WHO and the media, the Peruvian government announced it would release between 4,000 and 5,000 people.

Overall, attention towards prisons and people living in prisons has increased since the first few weeks from almost non-existing to providing prisons with more resources, such as distribution of masks, extra beds, isolation of people in prisons and staff, as well as systematic testing, actively engaging prisoners in the response.

The case of Russia

The total population of people in prisons in Russia is just over 450,000. In addition to these people, there are close to 100,000 people detained awaiting sentences1. As of June 25th there were 766 cases of infection among prisoners and 2,132 among prison staff, and no deaths reported. However, these numbers have been questioned by many organisations and are expected to be much higher.

On March 30th 2020 the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia published a new Act aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, such as the use of PPE and the change in working schedules, but these measures were largely directed at prison staff. Some independent sources suggest that each prisoner is given one mask but testing and treatment are very limited. Additionally, visitation of and communication with people living in prisons have been restricted, including visits from family members, lawyers, human rights organisation’s representatives, as well as the postal service. It is important to note that most medication and personal hygiene products are sent by the family members through the postal service, so these measures are believed to have quite severe consequences for people living in prisons. All paroles have been suspended and amnesty has not been granted to any prisoners.

Overall, there is great uncertainty and concern that the living conditions for people in Russian prisons have deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the unreliable information makes it difficult to assess the extent of the actual situation.

The case of USA

The U.S. prison system has approximately 1,833 state prisons, run autonomously by each state’s Department of Corrections (DOC)2. Most state DOCs have provided updates on COVID-19 through the use of each DOC website, including a variety of information. At the moment, there are reports of over 1600 clusters of 50 cases or more per various prisons, and research has shown the number of incarcerated individuals testing positive for COVID-19 is 5.5 times greater than the U.S. population3.  This number continues to rise.

The first policy updates related to the COVID-19 pandemic happened in the beginning of March and included the suspension of visitation. Toward the middle of March, incarcerated individuals and their families started receiving information on COVID-19. To allow individuals to be able to communicate with their family members and friends, some states started offering additional e-mail time, others free additional emails, or reduced costs, as well as the use of video visitation. From late March to early April, several PPE announcements were addressed, such as incarcerated individuals’ involvement in the production of masks and gowns for those infected in prison. In some states, DOCs discussed creating and using isolated areas for incarcerated individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, however, due to overcrowding in most state prisons, isolated areas prove to be difficult to provide.

It is also important to note that DOC facilities in the U.S. have very basic medical and healthcare supplies, so they are simply not prepared to deal with a pandemic. Prisons appear to be focusing on containment more so than mitigation of issues for long-term planning.

Vocational, educational and rehabilitative programs are also suspended, which can translate into an increased rate of recidivism. In addition to overcrowding, squalor, limited showers, and other methods in prison combined with COVID-19 could lead to increased psychological states in incarcerated individuals and possibly result in prison riots.

In addition, when it comes to prison emergency management, concerns stemming from COVID-19 will impact how prison administrations respond to the impact of various emergencies and disasters. Facing the risks of exposure to damaging hurricanes, wildfires, or other hazards, concerns relating to the spread of COVID-19 may discourage evacuation of prisons and institutions. As institutions defend-in-place, disruption to water supply and to supply chains and transportation for instance, are some of the major issues that may arise. Previous plans, preparedness and exercises have likely not accounted for COVID-19 and what that could mean for evacuation and the subsequent implications.

Hazard mitigation strategies and planning ahead are conducive to reducing the impacts of COVID-19. One strategy would be to reduce the incarcerated population. However, early release for incarcerated persons has not been embraced by local, state, or federal governments within the U.S. at the moment.

To sum up, when it comes to response to disasters in prisons whether related to natural hazards or pandemics, the different cultural, economic and political settings must call for different approaches and solutions.


  • JC Gaillard, Professor, The University of Auckland (New Zealand)
  • Ksenia Chmutina, Senior Lecturer, Loughborough University (UK)
  • Loic Le De, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand)
  • Stacie Merken, Assistant Professor, Indiana University South Bend (USA)
  • Carlee Purdam, Research Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University (USA)

  •  Moderator: Emmanuel Raju, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

 See the entire webinar in the below video


  1. World Prison Brief, http://www.prisonstudies.org/world-prison-brief-data
  2. Sawyer, W. & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass incarceration: The whole pie. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
  3. Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. (2020, July 8). COVID-19 cases and deaths in federal and state prisons significantly higher than in general U.S. population. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200708121423.htm