Global COVID-19 Impact ‘Heavily Felt’ on Prisoners: UN Expert

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UNODC COVID-19 donations to Zambia Correctional Prison Services, Kamwala Prison. Photo by OneUNZambia via Flickr.

On Wednesday, the 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice which is underway in Kyoto, Japan, will discuss the deadly impact of the novel coronavirus in carceral settings across the globe.

Ahead of the day’s panels and discussions, the UN News spoke with Philipp Meissner, a prison reform expert at the UN office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to learn more about the “heavily felt” impact of COVID-19 on everyone working in a prison system. 

Philipp Meissner, Prison Reform Focal Point in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Photo via UNODC website.

Meissner not only painted a drastic picture about the state of  prison systems around the world, but he shed some light on the good that the UNODC is doing to help offer the global support communities need. 

Meissner began by explaining to UN News reporters that the global carceral system is composed of more than 11 million individuals worldwide, and COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting those behind bars — even in “relatively well-resourced penal systems.”

“It’s estimated there are more than 527,000 prisoners who have become infected with the virus in 122 countries with more than 3,800 fatalities in 47 countries,” Meissner detailed to UN News, noting that with limited testing capacity in many places around the world, there’s no question that the “actual number may be much higher.” 

When asked where in the world are prisoners suffering the most, Meissner said it’s less about an actual location, and more about the challenges each carceral location uniquely faces. 

He explained to UN News that some prison systems are “over-stretched” to begin with, whether from a lack of funding, staffing, and equipment, while other jurisdictions struggle with proper hygiene and insufficient sanitation. 

To help with these developing concerns, the UNODC provided prison authorities in Bolivia, Lebanon, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Zambia with ugregly needed PPE — including infrared thermometers, face masks, gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizer the facilities were lacking. 

UNODC COVID-19 donation to Zambia Correctional Prison Services, Kamwala Prison. Photo by OneUNZambia via Flickr.

In Namibia, Africa, the UNODC created vocational training workshops for inmates to support their communities and keep themselves safe by learning to create soap and hand sanitizers, the UN News reports.  

But, no matter how many resources are at everyone’s disposal, Meissner says there’s another concern that isn’t as easily fixed. 

“Prison overcrowding, which continues to affect a majority of countries worldwide, exponentially increases the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the actual feasibility of introducing meaningful infection prevention and control measures,” Meissner told UN News.

To mitigate the impact of overcrowding, the UNODC has renovated prisoner accommodation areas in Malawi, Africa, while also renovating their ventilation and access to water to slow the spread of the virus. Similar initiatives are ongoing in Kenya, Somalia, and several other Southern African countries. 

Moreover, because of the virus and the mental strain that the pandemic has placed on everyone, Meissner said that “the atmosphere in prisons has become tense in many countries” leading to prison riots and other security incidents in all 50 countries as inates advocate for more transparency and communication about what’s going on. 

To also address the mental health strain, video conferencing equipment was supplied to prisons around the world so that inmates could maintain contact with their families, as well as allow for case management through virtual court hearings, UN News explains.

To combat issues surrounding a lack of information, the UNODC has set up a radio station in Mauritania, Africa, where three prisoners have been broadcasting regular information on COVID-19, hygiene, and health. 

Looking Ahead for Further Solutions

“While many jurisdictions are heeding these calls and have engaged in commendable efforts, more needs to be done to fully address the plight of prisoners during the pandemic and to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in prisons,” Meissner told UN News, adding, “that should include vaccination programs.”

Meissner also said that the Kyoto 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice will discuss “holistic perion reform” for solutions to curb the continuous inflow of prisoners. A possible solution would be issuing suspended sentences for less serious crimes, particularly for those who are at risk or are already near the end of their sentences. 

This would not be reinventing the wheel, Meissner says, as it’s estimated that more than 700,000 prisoners have already  been authorized for release globally through the past year.

Lastly, Meissner told UN News that the UNODC is actively working with over 50 countries to assist in enhancing preventative and control measures “to ensure continued adherence to minimum prison standards, as well as to promote, in suitable cases, an increased use of alternatives to imprisonment.”

Additional Reading: How Not to Manage a COVID-19 Outbreak in Prison

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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