Quali sono stati gli effetti della pandemia sulla popolazione detenuta nella carceri europee?

A questa domanda rispondono i dati pubblicati dal Consiglio d’Europa nelle Annual Penal Statistics relativi alla situazione pre-pandemica restituiscono un quadro con 13 giurisdizioni su 46 in una situazione di sovraffollamento (tra il 100 e il 126%) e altri 22 in una situazione di affollamento tra il 90 e il 100%. I primi mesi del 2020 sono stati segnati dall’arrivo della pandemia e fra gennaio e giugno in 27 giurisdizioni si è verificato un calo (sfortunatamente in molti casi solo temporaneo) della popolazione detenuta. In tema di pandemia, Penal Reform International nel suo ultimo rapporto globale sulle carceri segnala una mancanza di dati sull’incidenza del virus negli istituti penitenziari e che soltanto pochissimi paesi hanno incluso la popolazione detenuta nei piani vaccinali e ancora meno l’hanno resa prioritaria in quanto vulnerabile.

Anche in molti paesi del Consiglio d’Europa, la popolazione detenuta è stata lasciata fuori dai piani di immunizzazione a volte con dichiarazioni esplicite volte a chiarire che in nessun caso le persone detenute sarebbero state vaccinate prima della popolazione libera. Come se le loro vite valessero meno di quelle degli altri.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 Newsletter of the EG working group on Punishment, Prison & Detention

The pandemic has created challenges in all areas of human experience and prison life is no exception. Indeed the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many preexisting problems, created new ones and further isolated the prison population from the outside world.

The latest issue of the Council of Europe’s Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) can help us depict a picture of the situation of European prisons before the beginning of the global pandemic. At the end of January 2020, there were over 1.6 million inmates in European prisons, but, as it is known, the situation among the different countries varies significantly. Almost half of the inmates in the Council of Europe were detained in the Russian Federation (31% of the total) and in Turkey (18%); the other half of the prisoners detained in Europe were located in the UK (14%), Poland (5%), France (4%), Germany (4%), Italy (4%), Spain (4%), Ukraine (3%) and the remaining detainees (14%) were located in 38 other CoE countries.

The average prison population rate was of 116.7 inmates per 100.000 inhabitants. Within the Council of Europe (CoE), in two countries (Turkey and the Russian Federation) the prison population rate was over 300, in three countries (Georgia, Lithuania and Azerbaijan) it was over 200, in eight countries (the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Albania, Moldova and Serbia) it was between 150 and 200, in eleven countries it was between 100 and 150 and in 24 countries under 100.

Another important criteria to evaluate the health of prison systems is represented by the prison density (i.e. the number of inmates per 100 available places) that in the CoE was on average 86.6% with 22 countries with a prison density of less than 90%, thirteen countries ranging between 90 and 100% and other thirteen countries (Turkey, Italy, Belgium, Cyprus, France, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Slovenia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Denmark) more inmates per available places (ranging from 100 to 127%). In this case, it is important to remember that the SPACE statistics calculate the prison density using data provided by each country that uses its own standards regarding the space per detainee (some countries use the minimum 3 sq.m. while others a higher standard).

The legal status of detainees is also an interesting indicator because, as it is known, pre-trial detention is an important driver of prison overcrowding. Indeed, according to the SPACE, on average 25.7% of detainees in the CoE were without a final sentence at the beginning of 2020. Countries with percentages over 40% were seven and were mostly countries with very small prison populations (Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands and Switzerland). Countries with percentages between 30 and 40% of detainees without a final sentence were six (Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Italy and Montenegro) and other seven countries (France, Greece, Latvia, Malta, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden) had percentages between 25 and 30%.

It was in this overall critical situation that Covid-19 made its appearance and the responses of prison systems have not been homogeneous. As the second SPACE Covid-19 evaluation pointed out, in the short term (between 1 January and 15 April 2020) 17 prison administrations (in some countries there is more than one prison administration) recorded a decrease in the prison population while in 29 the prison population was stable and only one recorded an increase. By June, the prison administrations with a lower number of detainees had risen 27. However, during the summer with the end of lockdowns and release schemes, the situation reversed in 12 countries that on 15 September had more detainees than in June.

Consequently, changes were recorded also in prison population rates that generally decreased in the first half of the year and slightly increased in the second half.

Prison density was also affected by these changes in prison populations. Between 1 January and 15 September 2020, prison density decreased in most countries and increased only in a few. Out of the 35 prison administrations that answered to the SPACE survey, 10 were in a situation of overcrowding at the beginning of 2020; 6 of them (Slovenia, France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia and Cyprus) decreased their prison populations by 15 September, but did not manage to reach a prison density below 100%. The Czech Republic and Hungary, on the other hand reached the goal of reducing overcrowding below 100%.

Other interesting trends collected by the latest report of Penal Reform International (PRI) regard the lack of data on Covid-19 infections in prisons in several countries and even among CoE countries, civil society organisations lament the lack of consistent and reliable data on infections among inmates and prison staff. Indeed, data collected by the SPACE Covid-19 survey includes answers only from 34 prison administrations that were able to provide such numbers as of September 2020. The Global Prison Trends Report by PRI also points out that globally only “at least 13 countries have prioritised prisons in vaccination plans or roll-out” and “a further 11 countries have explicitly included, but not prioritised, prisons in their planning or roll-out”. This took place despite the many requests by international and civil society organisations to include detainees in the priority groups for vaccinations against Covid-19, despite the fact that in many countries prisons have become ‘hotbeds’ for outbreaks of the virus and despite the fact that detainees have been living for over one year in a situation of greater isolation from the outside world (with severe repercussions on mental health). Indeed, also in many CoE countries, the prison population has been left out of vaccinations plans and in several occasions politicians explicitly stated that people who had committed crimes would not have received vaccines ahead of the general population for a reason or another. As if their lives were less worthy than the lives of those who live free.

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