The dangers posed by COVID-19 to people detained and staff working in cramped, overcrowded conditions in prison were acknowledged in the earliest stages of the pandemic. High-level United Nations (UN) and government figures made statements highlighting the risk to life and health in prisons and, as Global Prison Trends 2021 describes, most countries implemented some form of emergency releases to reduce the prison population. As countries continue to navigate new waves of the pandemic, prisons remain hotbeds for virus transmission. Also, new offences for breaching COVID-19 regulations and the resumption of court processes have led to increases in prison numbers. 

The challenges faced by prisons over the past year have been compounded by decades of inadequate funding and criminal justice reform. The pandemic has exposed the impact of overcrowding and underresourcing of prisons in the gravest of terms – through the loss of life. We mourn every death in prison, both people detained and staff, and encourage all actors to learn from the experience of the past year, as detailed in Global Prison Trends 2021, to ensure prison systems protect the human rights of those they hold. 

Health crises and other emergencies are not unprecedented in prisons. This year’s Special Focus examines prisons in crises, and how authorities respond to health crises, natural hazards and extreme weather, or in fragile and conflict-affected settings. We look at how prisons and the people within them are affected, as well as the involvement of prison populations in times of such crises and consider what measures authorities can put in place for better preparedness and response.