30 September 2020

COVID-19 prison decongestion measures: global scan

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Harm Reduction International monitored prison decongestion measures adopted around the world between March and June 2020 in response to COVID-19, tracking criteria for eligibility and implementation of the measures.

Prison Decongestion 2020

Detention settings are high-risk environments for the spread of infectious diseases. As such, COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges for governments and prison administrations, catalysing the uptake of exceptional measures around the world to decongest prisons.

According to Penal Reform International, over 11 million people are imprisoned around the world. Twenty-one percent are detained for non-violent drug offences, including drug use and possession for personal use, making drug policy a significant driver of incarceration at the global level. The United Nations (UN) has expressed strong and unanimous support for the decriminalisation of possession and use of drugs, including calling on governments promote alternatives to conviction and punishment.

Compared to the general population, people in detention experience higher rates of chronic health problems such as HIV, TB, hepatitis C, diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as substance use and mental health problems. Studies show that access to healthcare in prisons is often limited, and of poorer quality than in the community.

Harm Reduction International monitored prison decongestion measures adopted around the world between March and June 2020 in response to COVID-19, and found evidence of such schemes in 109 countries. We tracked criteria for eligibility and implementation of the measures. Noting that UN experts recommended countries release “those charged for minor and non-violent drug and other offences” in the context of COVID-19, we further focused on how these measures impact on people in prison for drug offences.

Despite a scarcity of official information, we found that around a fourth of countries implementing decongestion schemes explicitly excluded people incarcerated for drug offences; effectively prioritising punitive approaches to drug control over the health of the prison population and the individual.

Looking at the cumulative effect of COVID-19-related schemes, we observe that in total, they reduced the global prison population by less than 6%, as at 24 June 2020. This falls significantly short of expectations and the significant political commitments made in the name of public health.

Notes on categories

  • Authority: ‘Executive’ includes Presidents, Kings, and Ministries; ‘Legislative’ includes Parliaments and legislative assemblies; ‘Judicial’ refers to courts.
  • Decongestion measures – criteria for eligibility:
    • ‘Children’ refers to individuals under 18 years of age;
    • ‘Elderly’ is defined differently in different jurisdictions, ranging – when specified – from 55 years’ old (Afghanistan) to 75 years’ old (Chile). For example, the minimum age required to qualify for early release is: 58 in Bolivia; 60 in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Honduras, and Uganda; 65 in Argentina, Guatemala, Haiti, and Senegal; 70 in Ireland.
    • The amount of ‘sentence left’ also varies significantly among countries. Among others: three years in Albania; 18 months in Algeria and Italy; one year in Ethiopia and Mozambique; six months in Kenya and Nigeria; two months in Cote d’Ivoire; 50% of the original sentence in Benin and Burkina Faso, Cyprus, Ghana, and Palestine – and 60% in Colombia.
  • Confirmed COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths in prison: for updated information, visit Justice Project Pakistan database at https://www.jpp.org.pk/covid19-prisoners/


This page was last updated on 17 June 2020. Harm Reduction International thanks Meron Fikru for her important contribution, and all the individuals and organisation that provided information, including: AdvocAid, Antigone, the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, Corporación Humanas, Defensoria del Pueblo de Ecuador, Irish Penal Reform Trust, KHANA, KontraS, Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia, Odhikar, PRAWA, Projecte Home Catalunya, Transform, and YouthRise.

For questions, information, or the full list of sources, please contact giada.girelli@hri.global

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