In the last few months, many countries have seen the lifting of numerous Covid 19 restrictions. While the pandemic is far from over and some countries are still opting for strict lockdowns, as in the notable case of China, in most of Europe and the US it has entered a new phase in which much of what made up life before Covid has resumed, at least for most people. A progressive return to the life before is also taking place in prisons. The time is right to have a look back at the last two years to review what prisons looked like during the pandemic, and what that can tell us about this fraught institution.

One of the main effects of the transition from corporeal punishment to imprisonment, famously described by Foucault, was that punishment stopped being a public spectacle and became hidden from public sight. This is one of the biggest challenges faced by those campaigning for the rights of those who are imprisoned, a problem that has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. While at the start of the pandemic in various countries attempts were made to address the risk of infection by easing pre-pandemic prison overcrowding, for instance through releases of those nearing the end of sentence and of those awaiting trails or temporary releases of the especially clinically vulnerable, these measures have been largely insufficient. Further, day-to-day safety measures to protect people from Covid-19 and access to quality health care, which has been a long term problem in prisons, were largely inadequate. As a result in various places, including the US, many prisons have seen deadly outbreaks of Covid-19.

The preferred strategy to face the pandemic has been that of further insulating prisons from the outside and those living in prison from each other. Prisons have become even more insular as a result of the interruption of prison visits, which in the UK were suspended for a year, of a variety of programmes run by professionals in prison as well as all opportunities for those in prison to engage in activities outside. Further, the hard-fought-for right to spend time outside one’s cell has been suspended in many countries. Famously, in the UK, those incarcerated have spent at least 23 hours per day in their cell for many months, which have by far exceeded what the United Nations regard as cruel, inhuman, or degrading prolonged solitary confinement (more than 15 days). Many of those living in prison have also lamented the lack of appropriate information about measures to protect them from infection and, where outbreaks happened, information on their development. At the same time, people outside were often inadequately informed about, and unable to communicate with, their loved ones, including those who had contracted Covid. Finally, some of those living in prisons have pointed out the arbitrariness in the enforcement anti-Covid measures; for instance, the fact that the easing of measures in the rest of society has not always corresponded to lifting of measures inside prisons or, as one incarcerated person at the Washington State Reformatory has remarked, that the rules of social distancing only seem to apply when prisoners want to use resources that would benefit them.

Taking stock of all of this, it seems that by exacerbating many of the existing problems in prisons the pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass of what our prisons are essentially like. Prisons are a site of social deprivation—a problem that has been extensively discussed by Kimberley Brownlee in the context of punishment and incarceration – and chronic boredom. Further, despite the fact that rehabilitation should be at the core of the justification of punishment, meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation through social contacts with loved ones and dedicated programmes are often lacking. This is combined with a lack of access to health care and often during the pandemic to the essentials of daily life, as well as the arbitrary rule of prison management. During the pandemic we have often talked about another parallel, and less visible, pandemic, that affecting our mental health. In prisons, places that already see a very high concentration of people facing mental health issues and mental illnesses, the existing mental health crisis has gotten significantly worse with people experiencing, among other things, severe anxiety and depression, lack of self-worth and deploying unhealthy coping strategies to address these issues.

In the debate between prison abolitionists and prison reformists, what is at stake is the question of whether incarceration is essentially incompatible with the protection of people’s rights and the respect that is due to them, or can instead be reformed to become a just and humane type of punishment. What has happened in prisons during the pandemic will be interpreted by some as revealing the core of prison as an inherently unjust and uncaring institution; at the very least it shows the urgency of massive reforms both when it comes to prison conditions and the reduction of the use of prisons. Such urgency is further underscored by concerns about how those incarcerated will fare in other crises to come, first and foremost the climate crisis, the unfolding of which has already impacted the prison population in many places.

It has often been said that the pandemic has reminded all of us of our vulnerability and the importance of care, including those who, due to various forms of privilege, are often in the position to avoid having to think about this fact. Because of this, some believe this new phase of the pandemic might represent a unique opportunity for people to organise to demand more caring and just institutions. Often during the pandemic people have used the metaphor of prison to describe their experience of confinement and isolation, especially when under strict lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. That metaphor is in many ways ill-fitting and even insensitive to the reality experienced by people who are imprisoned. Nonetheless, one is left to hope that catching a glimpse of that experience would make people aware of the urgency of prison reform and more ready to mobilize around it.

Costanza Porro

Costanza is a postdoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Hamburg, having completed a PhD in Law at King’s College London in 2019. Her research interests lie at the intersection of moral philosophy, political and social philosophy and the philosophy of criminal punishment. Her current research explores the relationship between vulnerability, the justification of moral equality and relational equality.