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Coronavirus : Health and Safety in Europe’s Prisons

Professor Marcelo Aebi from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who co-authored the latest Council of Europe annual penal statistics describes the situation of the 1.5 million prisoners in prisons in Europe, as authorities consider how best to deal with the Covid-19 coronavirus health crisis.


Charles Amponsah: As the Coronavirus, COVID-19, continues its devastating path across large parts of the continent, there’s increasing concern for the health and safety of greater Europe’s 1.5 million prisoners and others held against their liberty.  As many authorities and public policymakers consider how best to deal with the situation, the Council of Europe has released its latest penal statistics.  To discuss both issues, I’m joined by Professor Marcelo Aebi from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Professor Aebi, how would you assess the overall situation regarding Europe’s prison population, following the release of the latest Council of Europe annual penal statistics that you’ve co-authored?

Professor Marcelo Aebi: If you consider that prisons should always be the last resort, the situation is a good situation because in the medium-run, the prison populations in Europe in general are going down. Since 2012, 2013, we see a decrease in the number of inmates across Europe.

CA: And what can we say about prison density and indeed inmate overcrowding in greater Europe?

MA: Yes, prison density is measured taking into account the number of places available and the number of inmates and this is estimated by each prison administration.  So, it is an indicator that can be sometimes difficult to analyse concretely but according to the data we have, we still have something like 15 prison administrations that are facing overcrowding and amongst them, a few that seem quite complicated because they have more than 105 inmates per 100 places available.

CA:  So basically, the general definition of overcrowding that you are using is that if we had 100 prison places, for example, and you had 105 prisoners, that would count as overcrowding, would it?

MA: Exactly.  The difference is that some countries estimate the number of places available according to square metres, another to the number of beds available and some want to have only one inmate per cell and some allow two and in some situations, three, and in some countries, you even have more than that.

CA: Now, given the 15 member states that you have mentioned, that are suffering from overcrowding, the Council of Europe’s European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the CPT, is asking governments to provide alternatives to deprivation of liberty to ease overcrowding and offer, and I quote here, “screeing for COVID-19 and pathways to intensive care for the most vulnerable.” What are your thoughts on that approach?

MA: Yes, of course it is mandatory to take measures immediately.  The issue of overcrowding - we discuss it every year - and we see the evolution, which is in the general positive, because it is, in general, going down, but currently, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this becomes extremely important and perhaps this pandemic, if measures are not taken immediately will show us the real places where overcrowding is taking place.  If the key words are stay safe, isolate yourself, and you have overcrowded prisons, this is impossible to reach.

CA: The median age of inmates in the survey - not the average but the median age - was 35 but in some countries the proportion of prisoners over 50 was high.  Given that COVID-19 is said to adversely affect older people, how much of a worry are these numbers?

MA: I think that European prisons are facing their major challenge since World War Two because here, you have two factors.  One is overcrowding and the other one which you mentioned is the age of the prison population.  The general age of the population in Europe is increasing and this is reflected also in the prison population. You have 15-percent of persons aged more than 50 and roughly 2.4 aged more than 65. So, if you combine overcrowding plus a considerable number of persons aged more than 50 and more than 65, this is a terrible cocktail that can explode at any moment.

CA: Now, can or will governments be able to do much in these unusually tough times to ease the burden on prisons and indeed on prison authorities?

MA: I think that the three key words here would be testing, releasing and isolating. Testing is what the World Health Organisation said since the beginning.  You have to test so we should have enough tests to ideally do the whole population.  But, if we are talking about prisoners, they must be tested. Releasing: it means that those who are there for minor offences or like conversion of fines, they should be released.  And then isolating.  Of course, usually, the population is relatively younger in prisons because crime is clearly related to age so the ones that are old and in prison, you have to go case-by-case. This is not the moment to make general amnesties because you also have to protect the general population. So, release the prisoners who are in for minor offences and those who are there for serious crimes who can be under security measures, they must be isolated so that they are not affected by the virus.

CA: In terms of incarceration rates in the 2019 survey, there are still prison administrations where the rate is increasing. What can we say about those statistics?

MA: If we look at the long run, say since 2009-2019, the ten years, there are only a few cases.  It’s Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro so these are particular cases; countries that went, in the case of Serbia and Montenegro, under some transformations in that period. So, I think that these are probably going to change quite soon because there is a general trend to go down. If we look at the short term, what happened since the last report, there are specific explanations.  For example, in Turkey, there were a lot of incarcerations following the coup d’état. Then, you also have cases of countries that increased from 2018-2019, you have a few Nordic countries which usually have very low prison population rates and so these changes are usually punctual.  So, I don’t think that we should be too worried for the cases of the Nordic countries. 

CA:  Now, when we spoke last time about the 2018 statistics, there was a situation where people were going to prison mainly for drugs-related offences and indeed for homicide.  Is that still the case?

MA: Yeah, they are going to prison mainly for drug offences because these are very long prison sentences.  Every year, homicide represents less than 0.1 percent of the persons sentenced in one country but also it is an offence for which the sentences are long and so you count the same persons year after year after year.  For homicide, it is difficult to do something but for drug offences, it would be possible to reduce the lengths of the sentences imposed and thus reduce also the prison population and also the average age of the prison population.

CA: And what about women prisoners?

MA: Women only represent 5-percent of the persons in prison and this is a constant for many, many years.  Prison is mainly a male thing because it is mainly related to serious crimes, for example, violent crimes and men are over-represented in crimes of violence so that we can see this over-representation, huge over-representation, 95-percent of men in prison so it is violence.  Then you have the issue of drug offences but it depends on each country’s legislation and there you could eventually have more women but the ones who really represent the bulk of drug-trafficking, there also you have an over-representation of men.

CA: And going back to COVID-19, and the situation that we’re facing at the moment – pregnant women. What about these women in prison?

MA: Pregnant women - that is a delicate issue.  My personal opinion is that hotels are being closed nowadays and perhaps they could be used to host these specific cases. This is not a lot of people.  We saw only 5-percent of women in prison. Among them, the ones that are pregnant must represent a really small percentage.  So, it would be possible to host them, I think, outside prisons while keeping security as necessary.

CA: And finally, are we likely to see dramatic changes in the 2020 penal statistics as a result of the COVID-19 situation that we are in now?

MA: Yes.  This is going to change everything.  We are seeing already a lot of releases in some countries and, of course, we do not know if the situation is going to improve in the next few months; we only have guesses about what is going to happen but I’m practically sure that there will be a lot of releases due to this crisis. Maybe we will not see them immediately because we usually take as a point of reference 31 January and these releases started in March but I am sure that we will have to find a way of measuring also what happened after 31 January.

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