European Prisons Face Data Scarcity, Omission in Fight Against COVID-19

As European countries hunker down to battle yet another wave of COVID-19, its prisons wage a war within a war, largely overlooked and undercounted in COVID-19 action plans across the continent.

“In some cases, it was that prisons were not mentioned at all in the national vaccination plan,” says Tríona Lenihan, a policy and international advocacy manager at Penal Reform International. “A lot of the COVID policies generally in the (overall) community and prisons have been reactionary.”

While vaccines rolled in for the civil population in January of last year, many prisons did not begin receiving them until that summer. As policymakers and nongovernmental organizations try to bridge the vaccination gap, they battle blind, restricted by limited data on prison populations and a lack of transparency.

[MORE: How the Dutch Are Closing Their Prisons]

As of September 2021, only eight countries in Europe had vaccinated more than 80% of their prison populations, according to figures from Penal Reform International’s year-end global scan of COVID-19 vaccination. The report draws on surveys in 177 countries around the world and fully confirmed data on progress.

Of those countries, official government or similar national vaccination plans were found in 131 countries according to the study. And from that number, only 56 countries explicitly mention vaccination strategies for prisoners. By now, most countries in Central and Western Europe have begun vaccinating those in detainment, though progress remains unclear.

However, vaccine access in some places has hinged on what Lenihan describes a “luck of the draw,” based on detained people’s residence in a geographical region or prison with higher standards of care, as many European countries operate their prisons at the regional level.

Many countries have expanded their efforts beyond vaccination to push back against the tide of emerging variants, such as via early release programs.

While prison populations have seen large declines in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe, the rest of Europe has increased by 5% since the year 2000. Efforts to reduce Europe’s prison populations in at least 27 countries during the early days of the pandemic. However, measures tapered off as with the progressive waves of the virus.

“The problem was that, as the situation improved a little, those measures reverted back,” explains Dr. Filipa Alves da Costa, who is a public health consultant in the Alcohol, Illicit Drugs & Prison Health Programme at the World Health Organization. “Most laws that were implemented were temporary … They weren’t just taking people out of prisons because they thought they shouldn’t be there, but because there was a health threat.”

According to reports by the European Data Journalism Network, countries such as Sweden and Romania have even increased their prison populations since the beginning of the pandemic. Paired with health care worker shortages, an already medically underserved population has been pushed to the brink.

Outside providers account for a sizable number of health care workers within prisons. Due to their in hospitals or other high risk areas, many were restricted from entering prisons throughout the pandemic. “The same applies to (others who aren’t necessarily health workers but) provide health services. For example … the needle and syringe exchange program or psychological support,” Alves da Costa says.

The question of psychological care weighs heavily on the minds of prison activists and advocates. Though many countries have introduced or increased use of video communication, Teledoc, and other virtual services, the cessation of prison leave, recreational activities, and visitation has exacerbated mental health troubles within detained populations.

[MORE: 10 Countries With the Highest Incarceration Rates]

“There was a pre-existing mental health crisis in prisons globally before the pandemic. So, any impact from the pandemic is exposing and compounding all of those existing issues,” says Lenihan of Policy Reform International. “The pandemic did inspire this massive expansion in digital online tools for that purpose and for contact with the outside world, which has a huge impact on the mental health of people in detention.”

Despite this increased attention to prison vaccinations and leaps in technology therein, many prison populations’ COVID-19 vaccination rates remain well below the WHO’s global target of 70% to effectively combat omicron. For many, the hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to shine a light on inequalities faced by detained people.

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