3rd May 2023

Prisoners across the world paid a heavy price for infection control during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new report from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR), found that prison systems responded to the pandemic through a range of measures including limited early release of some prisoners; implementing prison lockdowns; introducing technology to enable visits; and testing and vaccines. Prison populations were reduced through ‘front-end’ (diverting people away from prison) and ‘back-end’ (releasing people already in prison) strategies using a wide range of interventions.

There was evidence of both good, and less successful, throughcare from prison to the community during this time. However, within this wider picture, there were some important variations. For example, while many countries decreased their prison population, others in fact increased it over the same period (usually as the result of an increase in the pre-trial population).

As Dr Katrina Morrison (Lead Author) stated: “Despite such variation in countries across the world, prison systems tended to respond along similar lines. However, in this context, it is also interesting to note that while prisons in Scotland largely followed global trends, they also introduced mobile phones to all people in prison to ensure that they could maintain contact with loved ones in the community – a response not seen in other countries in our study.”

In Scotland, these interventions could be seen as successful considering the low rate of infection and Covid-19 related deaths in prison, but prisoners themselves paid a heavy price for this: most specifically the mental and physical isolation; the remand population growing significantly; and progression through their sentencing made more difficult because education and rehabilitative courses were unavailable.

Concerns about potential breaches of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights were expressed in Scotland, because these restrictions could amount to inhuman degrading treatment, as they were in many other countries in the world.

The review, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group, concludes that learning lessons for the future will depend upon a range of factors including enhancing trust between prison staff and prisoners.

Dr Morrison commented: “Building trust between prisoners and the prison system has so many benefits including for public health measures such as infection control. Related to that, the principle of including prisoners in more decision-making and involving them in matters such as such as disseminating information can have positive results. Similarly, greater trust between prisoners and officials increased vaccine take-up and other public health supporting behaviours in prisons.”

The report authors also called for further research to help fill important knowledge gaps around what worked in prison and what didn’t, and the medium to long-term impacts of extended periods of isolation on rehabilitation rates.

The report, ‘A Review of Interventions, Innovation and the Impact of Covid-19 in the Scottish Prison System within a Comparative Analytical Framework’ was co-authored by Katrina Morrison, Kirstin Anderson, Emma Jardine, Matt Maycock and Richard Sparks.


Notes to Editors:

  1. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research is a collaboration between five Scottish universities; Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier, Glasgow, Stirling and Strathclyde. We produce research which informs policy and practice and advances our understanding of justice.
  2. This project was grant funded by the Covid 19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Matthew Ansley, Berlin, Germany

Criminal Justice and Health