Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Reduce The Spread of COVID-19

Desperate times require bold thinking and even bolder measures, it has sometimes been argued, and the Copenhagen-based NGO Dignity have being doing just that in recent weeks.

In the run up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture the NGO, Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture, has issued yet another top-rate, highly practical publication which tackles head-on the urgent need to reduce prison populations during the on-going pandemic.

This stunningly good new publication, titled Guidance Document on Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID-19 – Increasing the Use of Non-Custodial Measures, has been penned by Dignity’s long-time Legal Director Therese Maria Rytter and Legal Advisor Kalliopi Kambanella, and it arrives at a time when more and more of us are allowing ourselves to believe that perhaps this troublesome COVID-19 will soon be licked? However, are we jumping to a much-wished-for conclusion too soon?

Just this week, leading Canadian academics Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius published a highly thoughtful, superbly argued article as part of the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 Series, which, among its numerous excellent points, questioned whether the Canadian prison estate might be in for a second COVID-19 wave?

In the opinion piece, titled ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’, which was also featured in the Globe and Mail on 23 June 2020, the authors wrote:

While the spread of COVID-19 has mostly been kept at bay in Canadian prisons (with some institutions having had concerning outbreaks, such as Mission Institution in British Columbia and the Multi-level Federal Training Centre in Quebec), we are not suggesting that fear of contagion has dissipated for staff, prisoners, and those who care for said persons. As Canada prepares for a potential second wave of COVID-19, CSC and the provincial/territorial governments must continue to undertake structured and informed decarceration efforts (i.e. efforts directed at reducing the number of people housed in Canadian prisons). While undoubtable not a simple undertaking, such actions would be in line with recommendations made by the UN and by a working group of the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) of the Council of Europe (who released a “COVID-19 related statement” in April 2020).

Simply put, for those Canadians who think they may have made it through the worst of it – prison administrators included – then please think again. Fortuitously, in this very same connection, Dignity’s newly launched Guidance Document gives us much to reflect on.

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

The accompanying press-release outlines the publication’s overall purpose:

The world is facing an unprecedented public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic comes at a time when the global prison population is record high with 11 million prisoners worldwide and with over 124 states reporting prison overcrowding. Globally, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the detrimental consequences of chronic overcrowding in places of detention.

The pandemic warrants resolute action by states to reduce the prison population as an imperative for preventing an outbreak within the prison and, in turn, within society. Without compromising public safety, states must limit new admissions to prison and accelerate the release of certain categories of prisoners. To this end, states should consider increased use of non-custodial alternatives to detention and imprisonment.

Juvenile Detention Centre – Stuart McAlpine (2011).

Dignity’s two authors explain in 25 or so pages of useful, practical detail how such a reduction in a country’s prison population might be achieved in reality. The publication examines non-custodial measures at three main stages of the criminal justice process, namely (1) the pre-trial stage, (2) trial and sentencing stage, and (3) post-trial stage. In doing so, the authors draw on positive penal practice from across the globe in the context of the current global health emergency.

At the pre-trial stage, for example, non-custodial measures might include home arrest, reporting obligations, restrictions on leaving or entering a specific space without authorization, retention of travel documents, bail or bond, supervision by specific agency, and electronic monitoring. Country examples from India, Jordan and The Netherlands are cited.

At the trial and sentencing stage non-custodial measures might comprise fines, suspended or deferred sentences, probation or judicial supervision, community service, diversion to treatment, restrictions on movement, and electronic monitoring, with brief country examples offered from Thailand, Malaysia, USA and Norway.

Finally, at the post-trial stage non-custodial measures envelop an array of country examples in relation to non-custodial measures. These include parole or early conditional release, temporary release, compassionate release, pardon or amnesty, and electronic monitoring. In this section of the publication there are too many country examples to enumerate in these short pages – so just see for yourself.

Regrettably, Canada is not cited as an example in any of these three stages, despite there having emerged certain positive examples of non-custodial measures being employed at the provincial level, Ontario in particular. Even so, Dignity’s excellent publication warrants a much closer inspection.

And if those home-schooled children and maddeningly annoying bosses of yours have – once again – worn you down to the bone and you are even more time-poor than usual, you can always read the publication’s Executive Summary or overview of non-custodial measures. Busy parents of the world rejoice!

Finally, on a personal note, as we approach yet another International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, the Canada OPCAT Project salutes and thanks you for your unflagging commitment to the cause. As our motley collection of posters remind us, a better torture-free world is one day possible.


Read Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID19 (23 June 2020) and the related press release.

Explore Dignity’s Legal Fact-sheets.

Read Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius’ Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 Series article, ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’.

Explore UNODC’s and the Thailand Institute of Justice’s highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.