Impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic on prisons

The 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic has impacted prisons around the world.


The Afghan government released 10,000 prisoners, mostly women, young people, the critically ill, and inmates over 55 on March 26, 2020.[1]


On 16 March, the ACT government declared a public health emergency.[citation needed] It has also planned to cancel all visits to the Alexander Maconochie prison from March 23. ACT Corrective Services Commissioner Jon Peach stated that as a result there would be "increased access to telephones" for prisoners to keep in touch with their families.[2]


Hundreds of prisoners (who work outside the prison during the day) escaped from four prisons in São Paulo state after visitors were restricted and Easter furloughs were cancelled due to health concerns.[3]


The virus spread in at least four prisons in China.[4]


On 22 March, about 23 prisoners were killed and 83 injured during a prison riot in La Modelo in Bogota which erupted amid fears over spreading of the coronavirus through prison walls.[5][6] It was evident that prisoners across the country were protesting against the poor health services ever since the outbreak of COVID-19.[7]

The government is planning to release about 10,000 prisoners on the weekend of 4–5 April 2020. The release will not apply to individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses against minors, corruption, or crimes against humanity.[8]

Czech RepublicEdit

Due to the coronavirus, on March 13, Government Resolution No. 204/2020 Coll. banned family members from visiting relatives in prisons and jails. Defense attorneys are exempted from the bans.[9]


On 25 March, 4,011 prisoners were granted pardon by the Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde in an effort to prevent the coronavirus spread. The pardon applies only to prisoners convicted of minor crimes who are serving sentences of up to three years and those who are about to be released.[10][11]


On 16 March, a detainee died in the Fresnes prison.[12]


On March 3, more than 54,000 prisoners were temporarily released to prevent the spread of coronavirus.[13]

Prisoners rioted in southern Iran on March 30. Since the beginning of the year, riots have broken out in prisons in Aligudarz, Hamedan, and Tabriz, with some prisoners escaping. 70 inmates escaped Saqqez Prison in Kurdistan province on March 27. 100,000 prisoners have been released as a measure to contain the pandemic, but an estimated 50,000 people are still behind bars, including violent offenders and dual nationals and others with Western ties.[14]


An investigation was opened after 6 convicts died in the Sant'Anna prison of Modena from an overdose, other riots emerged in San Vittore and in the La Dogaia in Prato and 80 detainees escaped from Foggia's prison amid chaos in prisons sparked by the government new restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.[15]


A riot in a migrant detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, leaves a Guatemalan man dead and four people injured on 31 March. The detainees were worried about a possible COVID-19 outbreak.[16]

Mexico City began to sanitize its 13 penitentiaries and four detention centers on 4 April. The number of visitors was cut in half and staff, providers, and inmates will be evaluated for COVID-19. The inmates will also be given measles shots as the city is experiencing an outbreak of measles at this time. There are 25,243 inmates including 687 elderly prisoners, 488 with disabilities, 188 with HIV, and nine pregnant women.[17]


President Muse Bihi Abdi pardoned 574 prisoners and ordered them released, in order to control the spread of the virus.[18]


ISIL militants in Hassakeh province in eastern Syria rioted and four escaped from prison. While there are no reports of coronavirus infections in prisons in the area, there are concerns about a possible outbreak in overcrowded facilities. Kurdish authorities run more than two dozen detention facilities in northeastern Syria, holding about 10,000 ISIL fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, 800 of them from Europe.[19]


A riot started at the prison in Buriram Province in northeastern Thailand on 29 March when a false rumor about coronavirus infection spread as a cover-up for an escape attempt. Seven of the 2,100 prisoners escaped and were recaptured. Two prisoners at a different facility in the country have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and families have been banned from visiting prisons in the country for 14 days.[20]


On 13 March, Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül announced that meetings in all open and closed prisons, the use of family meeting rooms and transfers between prisons were delayed for two weeks.[21]

On March 20, the Human Rights Association, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Association of Lawyers for Liberty, Contemporary Lawyers Association, and Health and Social Service Workers Union of Civil Society in the Penal System, also published a statement on the COVID-19 outbreak and urged for immediate action in prisons. In their article, they emphasized on informing the public, especially family and lawyers of prisoners, about quarantine practices and the health status of prisoners.[22]

United KingdomEdit

The government released specific guidance to prisons in the event of coronavirus symptoms or cases, specifically the rule that "any prisoner or detainee with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature should be placed in protective isolation for 7 days".[23]

On 18 March, the first coronavirus case was reported in a UK prison. The prisoner, who had been serving time in HMP Manchester (commonly referred to as Strangeways), was moved to a hospital. While no other prisoners or staff tested positive for the virus, thirteen prisoners and four members of staff were put into isolation as a precaution.[24] Prison visits remained open, but the situation is being monitored.[25]

On 19 March, it was revealed that around 75 officers at HMP Berwyn in Wales were off work due to sickness or self-isolation, and 22 prisoners showing symptoms of coronavirus were being isolated by the prison. However, the prison had enough staff members to remain fully operational.[26]

Following the case in HMP Manchester, public services think tank Reform called for the release of 2,305 "low-risk" offenders on short sentences to reduce the risk of coronavirus on the prison population.[27] Their report argues that prison are "overcrowded [with] insanitary conditions and poor-quality healthcare".[28] Similar actions have been taken in Iran and the United States.[29]

On March 21, former justice secretary David Gauke called for suspension of short sentences and early release of some prisoners to avoid COVID-19 spread.[30]

United StatesEdit

Jail and prison officials across the country try to prevent outbreaks of coronavirus in the nation's 6,000 prisons. Between March 22 and March 26, 23 inmates had escaped and at least one inmate had tested positive for Covid-19 in each of two prisons. Judges have ordered the liberation of thousands of prison inmates, and there are calls to release all medically-vulnerable inmates.[31]

Prevention is complicated by poor sanitation at many prisons. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is often prohibited for inmates.[32][33]

Federal correctional systemEdit

Attorney General William Barr announced on March 26, 2020, that he had instructed federal prisons to free some inmates to lessen the impact of the coronavirus epidemic. The order favors inmates over 60 who have not been convicted of violent or sex crimes and applies to about 2,000 of the 170,000 inmates in the federal correctional system. The majority of the 2.2 million prisoners in the United States are in state or local custody. There have been about a dozen cases of Covid-19 among federal prisoners and staff.[34]

Patrick Jones, a 47-year old inmate at a minimum-security prison in Oakdale, Louisiana became the first fatality of Covid-19 in a federal prison on March 29. Five other inmates are infected.[35] The federal Bureau of Prisons is locking all its 146,000 inmates in their cells from April 1 to 14. The situation has become so bad at Federal Correctional Complex, Oakdale in Louisiana that authorities have stopped testing for COVID-19 and instead assume that anyone with symptoms is infected.[36]

Immigration facilitiesEdit

Detainees at several U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities went on strike to demand sanitary supplies.[37] Federal judges in California and Pennsylvania have ordered ICE to release several detainees who have sued. Lawsuits are pending in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. As of April 2, there were 35,000 people in ICE custody.[38]


On March 21, it was reported that 50 inmates have been released in Coconino County in a state to reduce coronavirus risks. In Pima County, the sheriff proposed measures to reduce the inmate population, such as releasing 135 people jailed for probation violations or relocating some prisoners to state prisons.[39]


  • Alameda County: On March 20, Alameda County officials announced that 247 people would be released from Santa Rita Jail, located in Dublin.[40]
  • Los Angeles County: On March 17, the county Sheriff's Department announced that it had reduced the inmate population by 600 during the previous two weeks in an attempt to keep prisoners from coronavirus.[41]
  • San Diego County: On March 16, the Sheriff's Department said it had started reducing the number of people being accepted into the county's seven jails and had received approval for early release of some prisoners. Other measures included in-cell meals, a suspension of visitation, and suspension of jail programs.[42]


The Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) suspended visitations and announced additional sanitation measures, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that inmates had seen no extra soap.[43] A prison worker was confirmed to have the coronavirus on March 18 — the DOC, citing "security and HIPAA restrictions", declining to name the affected prison. The first detected case on COVID-19 in a prison inmate was at Lee State Prison two days later, on March 20.[44]

On March 21, CNN reported that three inmates tested positive for coronavirus at Lee State Prison in Leesburg. Three other prisoners were under observation with similar symptoms.[45]


Testing for COVID-19 disclosed the first case of infection on March 22 in Cook County Jail in Chicago. 10% of the 5,000 inmates were released as a cautionary measure, but the number of infections had risen to 134 by March 30. Fifteen inmates and eleven staff have tested positive at other facilities in the state, with at least 80 waiting for test results. One prisoner died on March 30 at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.[46]


The first prison case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts was reported on March 21 at Massachusetts Treatment Center. The prisoner and his roommate were placed in quarantine on March 19.[47] As of March 31, 17 prisoners had tested positive at the Massachusetts Treatment Center as well as six Department of Correction staff – four at the treatment center, one at MCI-Shirley, and one at the Department of Correction central office. Two prisoners have tested positive at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction in Billerica, MA, as have 14 employees in the state's county jail systems.[48]


The Michigan Department of Corrections banned visitors to prisons, along with prohibiting any volunteers from the prison. Staff at prisons will be required to have their temperature tested and be proven to be under 100.4 °F (38.0 °C) along with other measures.[49] The Michigan Career and Technical Institute suspended all programs until April 5.[50]

New JerseyEdit

On March 24, a 31-year-old male Mexican national in custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Hackensack, New Jersey was held in isolation after being tested positive for Covid-19. He was the first migrant to test positive, and ICE suspended the intake of new migrants.[51]

New YorkEdit

After a guard and a prisoner tested positive for coronavirus at Rikers Island prison, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that city officials will identify individuals for release, including persons arrested for minor crimes and those most vulnerable to infection due to chronic health problems. In addition to the cases at Rikers, other prisons in the state, including Sing Sing, have recorded positive tests among prisoners, and one member of the correction's department has died from the virus.[41]

As of March 25, 75 New York City inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 and 37 city corrections staff members, up from 50 inmates and 30 staffers the previous day. City jails are notoriously crowded, with beds often touching and in at least one instance, 29 people share a single toilet.[31]


Due to ongoing public health concerns related to the coronavirus, on March 13, Eastern State Penitentiary (a historic site which stopped operating as a prison in 1971) was closed to the public.[52]

South DakotaEdit

Nine prisoners escaped from a minimal-security women's prison on March 23, the same day a fellow-inmate tested positive for Covid-19. Three were captured on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation and one was captured in Rapid City. It was not immediately clear if the diagnosis prompted the prisoners to run.[53]

Washington stateEdit

Fourteen inmates escaped from the county jail in Yakima County on March 23. They used a table to break down an exit door and then climbed a fence. The U.S. Marshals Service offered rewards of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrests of the escaped inmates.[53]


The first COVID-19 positive case in the Wisconsin state prison system, an employee at Waupun Correctional Institution, was reported on March 18 by warden Brian Foster. Inmate advocacy groups called on the Department of Corrections and Governor Tony Evers to change prison policies to protect prisoners and guards during the epidemic.[54]


Reuters reported that Venezuela's notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary prisons could spread the coronavirus "like a fast-moving fire." Venezuelan prisons frequently lack bathrooms, people sleep on floors, and many inmates spend their days without shirts or shoes on, in part to combat the infernal heat of windowless facilities.[55]

This has caused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to demand the Maduro government release six Citgo executives, held in prison since 2017, on humanitarian grounds.[56][57] Pompeo said that all six men have weakened immune systems and "face a grave health risk if they become infected" with the coronavirus pandemic.[57] The Venezuelan Medical Federation asked for the release of the political prisoners in the country, specifically Roberto Marrero, Juan Requesens and other lawmakers.[58]

On 18 March, 84 out of 518 inmates escaped from a prison in San Carlos, Zulia, after restrictions against the pandemic were announced, including jail visits. Mayor Bladimir Labrador declared that ten prisoners were killed during the prison break and that two policemen were detained for complicity. According to Carlos Nieto Palma from the NGO Ventana a la Libertad, the suspension of visits directly affects the prisoner's nutrition, given that there was no state-sponsored program to feed them.[59] The NGO Provea denounced "grave human rights violations" after a military spokesperson announced the "neutralization" of 35 escapees. State authorities later declared that the there were eight deaths.[60]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Afghanistan to release up to 10,000 prisoners to slow coronavirus spread AFP, 26 Mar 2020
  2. ^ "Canberra coronavirus cases increase as Health Minister halts prison visits". ABC News. 21 March 2020. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  3. ^ 'Come back Monday, OK?' Hundreds of prisoners escape in Brazil amid Covid-19 anger
  4. ^ Wang, Vivian; McNeil Jr, Donald G.; Fassihi, Farnaz; Myers, Steven Lee (21 February 2020). "With 4 Deaths in Iran and More Cases on 3 Continents, Fears of Coronavirus Pandemic Rise". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  5. ^ "Colombia coronavirus: 23 killed in prison riot". Retrieved 2020-03-23.
  6. ^ Vera, Amir. "23 dead in prison riot in Colombia prompted by coronavirus fears, Ministry of Justice says". CNN. Retrieved 2020-03-23.
  7. ^ "At least 23 killed in Colombia prison unrest". BBC News. 2020-03-23. Retrieved 2020-03-23.
  8. ^ Colombia prepares a massive release of prisoners for the advance of the coronavirus (in Spanish) by Jorge Cantillo, Infobae, retrieved 3 Abr 2020
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Ethiopia pardons more than 4,000 prisoners to help prevent coronavirus spread". Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  11. ^ Sahle-Work Zewde [@SahleWorkZewde] (26 March 2020). "In order to reduce prison overcrowding and prevent the spread of #COVID19, I have, in accordance with article 71/7 of our Constitution, granted pardon to 4011 prisoners convicted of minor crimes serving a sentence up to 3 years and those about to be released" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  12. ^ "Mort d'un détenu à Fresnes : les prisons à l'épreuve de l'épidémie de coronavirus". Retrieved 2020-03-19.
  13. ^ "Coronavirus: Iran temporarily frees 54,000 prisoners to combat spread". BBC News. 3 March 2020.
  14. ^ Prisoners riot in Iran; Netanyahu goes into self-quarantine By AMIR VAHDAT and ARON HELLER, Associated Press, 30 Mar 2020
  15. ^ "Caos nelle carceri per il coronavirus, 6 morti a Modena per overdose: aperta indagine. Fiamme a San Vittore e Prato. Fuga dei detenuti a Foggia". 9 March 2020.
  16. ^ Riot in Tabasco immigration station leaves one dead and four wounded (in Spanish) EFE/Informador, 1 April 2020
  17. ^ CDMX penalties are sanitized and visits are reduced due to coronavirus by Israel Zamarrón, El Sol de México, 4 Apr 2020
  18. ^ "COVID-19: Somaliland releases 574 prisoners". Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  19. ^ IS militants riot in eastern Syria prison, some escape By The Associated Press/ABC News, 30 Mar 2020
  20. ^ Coronavirus rumors alleged to have set off Thai prison riot By The Associated Press/ABC News, 29 Mar 2020
  21. ^ "Adalet Bakanı Gül: Açık ve kapalı tüm cezaevlerindeki görüşler iki hafta süreyle ertelenmiştir". Anadolu Agency. 13 March 2020. Retrieved 13 March 2020.
  22. ^ Covid-19 Salgını ve Hapishanelerde Acilen Alınması Gereken Önlemler
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  28. ^ "Reducing the prison population: Extending Home Detention Curfew and scrapping short sentences | Reform". March 2020. Retrieved 20 March 2020.
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  30. ^ "Prisons could see 800 deaths from coronavirus without protective measures," The Guardian, March 21, 2020
  31. ^ a b Releases, infections, fear: U.S. coronavirus crisis in jails and prisons looms By Chris Francescani, ABC News, 26 Mar 2020
  32. ^ "Coronavirus and Prisons: A Toxic Combination". The Marshall Project. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  33. ^ Williams, Timothy; Weiser, Benjamin; Rashbaum, William K. (30 March 2020). "'Jails Are Petri Dishes': Inmates Freed as the Virus Spreads Behind Bars". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  34. ^ U.S. to free some prisoners amid coronavirus threat AFP, 26 March 2020
  35. ^ Inmate dies after contracting coronavirus at Louisiana federal prison by Rich Schapiro, NBC News, 29 Mar 2020
  36. ^ Federal inmates to be locked in cells for 14 days amid virus AP, 31 Mar 2020
  37. ^ Coronavirus Fears Spark Prison Strikes, Protests, and Riots Around the World
  38. ^ Judge in Maryland weighs release of 2 detained immigrants by MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press, 2 Apr 2020
  39. ^ Jacques Billeaud, "Some sheriffs ask to reduce jail population amid virus worry,", March 21, 2020
  40. ^ Marua Dolan, Alene Tchekmedyian, Piage St. John, "California releases more jail inmates amid coronavirus crisis," Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2020
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  43. ^ Boone, Christian; Sharpe, Joshua (March 19, 2020). "'No extra soap': Georgia inmates say prisons not ready for COVID-19". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  44. ^ Blau, Max; Sharpe, Joshua (March 20, 2020). "NEW FINDINGS: Georgia prison inmate tests positive for COVID-19". Retrieved 21 March 2020.
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  47. ^ "First case of COVID-19 in Bridgewater Prison," Channel 22 News, March 21, 2020
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  49. ^ MDOC Halts All Visits at State Prisons
  50. ^ Michigan Career & Technical Institute to Close to Protect Against COVID-19
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  52. ^ Eastern State Penitentiary," accessed March 21, 2020
  53. ^ a b 9 inmates bolt from South Dakota prison on same day a prisoner tested positive for coronavirus By Bill Hutchinson, ABC News, 25 Mar 2020
  54. ^ Emily Hamer, "Wisconsin prison employee tests positive for COVID-19; inmate advocates call for protections amid pandemic," State Journal, March 20, 2020
  55. ^ Ellsworth, Brian; Sequera, Vivian (18 March 2020). "Overcrowded and unsanitary, Venezuela's prisons brace for coronavirus". Reuters. Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  56. ^ Secretary Pompeo [@SecPompeo] (19 March 2020). "It is past time for the Maduro regime to release the #Citgo6 who are currently languishing in the notorious Helicoide prison in #Venezuela. 2+ years in prison with no evidence brought against them; 18 hearings cancelled. Unacceptable" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  57. ^ a b "US demands Venezuela free Citgo executives as virus hits". France 24. Agence France-Presse. 19 March 2020. Retrieved 20 March 2020.
  58. ^ "Presidente de la FMV exhorta a que se liberen a presos políticos por coronavirus". La Patilla (in Spanish). 14 March 2020. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
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  60. ^ "Provea denuncia asesinato de 35 presos fugados de retén en Zulia". Tal Cual (in Spanish). 18 March 2020. Retrieved 27 March 2020.