COVID-19, Prisons and Drug Policy

Global Scan – March-June 2020

Detention settings are high-risk environments for the spread of infectious diseases. As such, COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges for governments and prison administrations, catalysing the uptake of exceptional measures around the world to decongest prisons.

According to Penal Reform International, over 11 million people are imprisoned around the world. Twenty-one percent are detained for non-violent drug offences, including drug use and possession for personal use, making drug policy a significant driver of incarceration at the global level. The United Nations (UN) has expressed strong and unanimous support for the decriminalisation of possession and use of drugs, including calling on governments promote alternatives to conviction and punishment.

Compared to the general population, people in detention experience higher rates of chronic health problems such as HIV, TB, hepatitis C, diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as substance use and mental health problems. Studies show that access to healthcare in prisons is often limited, and of poorer quality than in the community.

Harm Reduction International monitored prison decongestion measures adopted around the world between March and June 2020 in response to COVID-19, and found evidence of such schemes in 109 countries. We tracked criteria for eligibility and implementation of the measures. Noting that UN experts recommended countries release "those charged for minor and non-violent drug and other offences" in the context of COVID-19, we further focused on how these measures impact on people in prison for drug offences.

Despite a scarcity of official information, we found that around a fourth of countries implementing decongestion schemes explicitly excluded people incarcerated for drug offences; effectively prioritising punitive approaches to drug control over the health of the prison population and the individual.

Looking at the cumulative effect of COVID-19-related schemes, we observe that in total, they reduced the global prison population by less than 6%, as at 24 June 2020. This falls significantly short of expectations and the significant political commitments made in the name of public health.

Read our key findings in the briefing here

Country Authority Decongestion measures Decongestion measures - Criteria considered for eligibility Are people detained for drug offences excluded? Outcome Prison population (latest available, pre COVID-19) Congestion rate, %age (latest available, pre COVID-19) Confirmed COVID-19 cases in prison? Confirmed COVID-19 deaths in prison?
AFGHANISTAN Executive Early release Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Women
Yes 5,000 releases 30748 179.9 Yes Yes
ALBANIA Executive Temporary release Sentence served/left Yes 600 releases 5063 85 Yes No
ALGERIA Executive Pardon Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
Yes 5,037 releases 65000 89.3 Yes Yes
ANGOLA Executive Early release
Expedite proceedings
Pre-trial detention
Other
Unclear 3,000+ releases 24000 110.8 No No
ARGENTINA Judicial Home arrest Elderly
Offence
Pregnant women
Women with children
Health conditions
No 500+ releases 94883 122 Yes Yes
AUSTRALIA Executive Home arrest Availability of accommodation
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Other
No
120+ releases
43134 112.2 Yes No
AUSTRIA Executive Other Offence
Other
Unclear Prison population decrease: - 500 9351 105.8 Yes Yes
AZERBAIJAN Executive Early release Elderly
Sentence served/left
Unclear 370+ releases 21926 86 Yes No
BAHRAIN Executive Pardon
Other early release
Nationality
Sentence served/left
Other
No 1,701 releases 3485 110.2 Yes No
BANGLADESH Executive Pardon
Early release
Expedite proceedings
Offence
Sentence served/left
Other
No 2,329 releases
2,884 releases planned
89506 220 Yes Yes
BELARUS Executive Pardon
Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Men and women with children
Sentence served/left
Yes
2,500 releases planned
6,000 releases from "open correctional facilities" planned
32500 83.4 Yes No
BELGIUM Executive Temporary release
Availability of accommodation
Conduct in prison
Offence
Sentence
No 323+ releases
Prison population decrease: 10% March/April
10883 120.6 Yes No
BENIN Executive Release on parole/bail Conduct in prison Unclear 411 prisoners released 8502 151.3 No No
BOLIVIA Executive Pardon Breastfeeding women
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
Single parents of young children
No 2 releases
5,000+ releases expected
19161 363.9 Yes Yes
BOTSWANA Executive Early release Unclear Unclear 149 releases 4343 100.9 No No
BRAZIL Judicial Home arrest
Early release
Other
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
Pre-trial detention
Sentence
No
30,000 releases expected
773151 167.7 Yes Yes
BURKINA FASO Executive Pardon Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence served/left
No 1,207 releases 7621 189.6 No No
CAMBODIA Executive Early release
Expedite proceedings

Conduct in prison
Offence
Sentence served/left
No 10,000 releases planned 38990 146.6 No No
CAMEROON Executive Early release Children
Offence
Sentence
Other
Yes 1,000~ releases 30701 171.4 Yes Yes
CANADA Judicial Early release
Temporary release
Expedite proceedings
**varies by state**
Health conditions
Offence
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
No 2,000+ releases 39579 102.2 Yes Yes
CAYMAN ISLANDS Prison administration Early release Nationality
Offence
Sentence served/left
Unclear 18+ releases 240 102.1 Yes No
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC Executive Early release Breastfeeding women
Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
No Unclear 764 Unknown No No
CHAD Executive Early release
Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Pregnant women
No 3,200 releases 8700 323 No No
CHILE Executive Home arrest Availability of accommodation Elderly
Offence Pregnant women
Women with young children
Yes 1,591 releases 38657 100.4 Yes Yes
COLOMBIA Executive Home arrest, temporary Availability of accommodation
Breastfeeding women
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pre-trial detention
Sentence
Sentence served/left
Women with young children in prison
Yes
**appealed**
566 releases
4,000 releases expected
117336 139.5 Yes Yes
COMOROS Executive Early release Offence Unclear Unclear 225 161.7 No No
CONGO BRAZZAVILLE Executive Early release Offence
Sentence served/left
Unclear 365 releases 1388 616.9 No No
COSTA RICA Judicial Home arrest, temporary
Conduct in prison
Elderly
Health conditions
Pregnant women
Yes (pre-trial) 40~ releases 19226 129.1 No No
COTE D'IVOIRE Executive Pardon
Early release
Offence
Sentence served/left
Unclear 2,004 releases 21186 196.9 Yes No
CUBA Executive Early release
Release on parole/bail
Conduct in prison Pre-trial detention
Risk
Unclear 6,500+ releases 90300 Unknown No No
CYPRUS Executive Early release
Home detention
Sentence served/left No 137 releases 723 98.1 Yes No
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO Executive Release on parole/bail Offence
Pre-trial detention
No 2,200+ releases 20550 400 Yes No
DJIBOUTI Executive Early release Sentence served/left No 178+ releases 600 171.3 No No
EGYPT Executive Pardon
Early release
Offence
Sentence served/left
Yes 6,935 pardons
233 releases
106000 Unknown Yes Yes
ETHIOPIA Executive Pardon
Other

Offence
Pregnant women
Sentence
Sentence served/left
Women with children
No 40,000~ releases 113727 Unknown Yes No
FRANCE Executive Home arrest Offence
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
No
Prison population decrease: -14,000 March-June
70059 116.5 Yes Yes
GABON Executive Pardon Sentence served/left No 680 releases 4476 Unknown No No
GAMBIA Executive Pardon Unclear Unclear 115 releases 691 172.5 No No
GERMANY Executive Early release Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 1,000 releases expected 63643 85.6 Yes No
GHANA Executive Pardon
Criminal history
Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence served/left
No 808 releases 15463 155.5 Yes No
GUINEA BISSAU Executive Pardon Offence
Sentence served/left
Yes 9 releases 196 102.2 No No
GUYANA Prison administration Early release
Elderly
Heatlh conditions
Offence
Sentence served/left
No Unclear 2069 137.5 No No
HAITI Prison administration
Judicial
Early release Conduct in prison
Elderly Health conditions Pre-trial detention Sentence served/left Other
Unclear 459+ releases 10905 454.4 Yes No
HONDURAS Judicial Early release Health conditions Elderly unclear 962 releases 21629 204 Yes Yes
INDIA Judicial Release on parole/bail
Temporary release
**varies by state** **varies by state** 66,000+ releases 466084 117.6 Yes Yes
INDONESIA Executive Release on parole/bail Children
Conduct in prison
Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence
Sentences served/left
Yes - if sentence over 5 years 39,000+ releases 268967 203.8 Yes Yes
IRAN Executive Pardon
Temporary release
Unclear No 10,000~ pardons
75,000~ releases, some temporary
240000 153 Yes Yes
IRAQ Judicial Early release Offence Unclear 17,455+ releases 45000 139.2 Yes No
IRELAND Executive
Prison administration
Temporary release Offence
Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 300+ releases
Prison population decrease: -505 March-June
3983 93.9 No No
ISRAEL Executive Early release Offence
Sentence
No 400~ releases 19376 80.1 Yes No
ITALY Executive Home arrest Availability of accommodation
Offence
Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 3,282 releases
Prison population decrease: -8,000 Jan-May
60125 118.9 Yes yes
JORDAN Judicial Early release Offence + pre-trial detention Yes 1,500 releases 20060 150.2 No No
KENYA Judicial
Prison administration

Expedite proceedings
Offence
Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 7,000~ releases 53348 190.5 Yes no
KUWAIT Prison administration Early release Offence
Other
Yes 24+ releases 4662 134.1 No No
KYRGYZSTAN Executive Pardon Elderly
Health conditions
Offence + criminal history
Sentence served/left
Women with children
Yes 3,000 releases expected 10142 61.7 No No
LEBANON Executive Early release Sentence served/left No 559 releases 10032 286.6 No No
LIBERIA Executive Offence
Pre-trial detention

Offence
Pre-trial detention
Unclear 200+ releases 2700 222.1 No No
LIBYA Executive
Judicial
Early release
Elderly
Health conditions
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
Other
Unclear 1,700+ releases 9100 141.6 No No
MADAGASCAR Executive Early release Other (only journalists eligible) Yes Unclear 27903 237.4 No No
MALAWI Executive Early release Health conditions
Offence Sentence served/left
Unclear 1,392 releases 14060 200.9 No No
MALDIVES Executive Pardon
Availability of accommodation
Conduct in prison
Offence
Other
Unclear 105 releases 1852 127.7 No No
MALI Executive Pardon Health conditions
Pregnant women
Sentence served/left
Unclear 1,200 releases 5209 223.3 No No
MAURITIUS Judicial Early release Conduct in prison
Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence served/left
Yes 423 releases 2387 116.9 No No
MEXICO Legislative Early release
Criminal history
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
Other
No 0 released through the amnesty
3,436 releases through existing mechanisms
198384 90.1 Yes Yes
MOROCCO Executive Pardon Conduct in prison
Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence served/left
Yes 6,000+ releases 85767 136.9 Yes Yes
MOZAMBIQUE Legislative Early release
Pardon

Health condition
Offence
Sentence
Yes 5,057 releases 19832 210.7 No No
MYANMAR Executive Pardon Unclear No 24,896 releases 92000 139.4 No No
NAMIBIA Executive Pardon
Conduct in prison
Elderly
Offence
Yes 1,023 releases 7400 72.7 No No
NEPAL Judicial Early release Children
Offence
Sentence served/left
No 409 releases 25000 153.7 No No
NETHERLANDS Prison administration Home arrest, temporary Sentence served/left
Other
Unclear Unclear 9753 97.3 Yes No
NICARAGUA Executive Home arrest Elderly
Health conditions
Unclear 2,815 releases 20918 177.6 Yes Yes
NIGER Executive Pardon Elderly
Health conditions
Sentence served/left
No 1,540 releases 10723 101.6 No No
NIGERIA Executive
Judicial
Early release Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
Sentence served/left
Other
Yes
3,750+ releases
50,000+ releases expected
67227 147 No No
NORWAY Prison administration **measure abolished 1 May 2020**
Early release
Home arrest
Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 194 releases 3227 88.5 Yes No
OMAN Executive Pardon Unclear Unclear 797 releases 1,960+ Unknown No No
PALESTINE Executive Pardon
Offence
Sentence served/left
No Unclear 4600 Unknown No No
PANAMA Executive Early release Unclear Unclear 200~ releases 17899 122.2 Yes No
PAPUA NEW GUINEA Prison administration Unclear Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Risk
Unclear 100~ releases expected 5087 116.5 No No
PERU Executive Pardon
Early release
Elderly + offence
Offence
Health conditions
Pregnant women
Sentence
Sentence served/left
Women with young children
Yes (Only aggravated) 1,500 releases 96870 241.3 Yes Yes
PHILIPPINES Executive Temporary release Criminal history
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence
No 18,335 releases through different measures 215000 463.3 Yes Yes
PHILIPPINES Executive Expedite proceedings Offence Yes
PHILIPPINES Judicial Temporary release
Release on parole/bail

Availability of accommodation
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
No
PORTUGAL Executive Early release
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence
No 1,200+ releases 12867 99.5 Yes No
PUERTO RICO Legislative
Prison Administration
Early Release
Availability of accommodation
Conduct in prison
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence served/left
No Unclear 10475 73.6 No No
QATAR Executive Pardon Unclear Unclear 500+ releases 1150 Unknown Yes No
RWANDA Judicial
Executive
Temporary release Breastfeeding women Children Conduct in prison
Offence
Other
Yes
Unclear re pardon
5,000+ releases 65000 101.3 Yes No
SAUDI ARABIA Executive Early release
(and repatriation)
Other (only foreign nationals held on non-violent immigration or residency offences eligible) No 250 releases 61000 Unknown No No
SENEGAL Executive Pardon
Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Yes 2,036 releases 11547 129.7 No No
SLOVENIA Legislative Early release
Temporary release

Conduct in prison
Sentence served/left
Unclear 68 sentences suspended
15 releases
1396 104.3 Yes No
SOMALIA Executive Pardon Offence Unclear 148 releases Unknown Unknown No No
SOMALILAND Executive Pardon Offence Unclear 574 releases Unknown Unknown No No
SOUTH AFRICA Executive Release on parole/bail Elderly
Health conditions Pregnant women
Risk
Sentence served/left Other (prisoners who committed crimes because of "need")
No 19,000 releases 154437 137 Yes Yes
SOUTH SUDAN Executive Early release
Other
Children
Elderly
Health conditions
Pre-trial detention + offence
Risk
No 1,485 releases 7000 Unknown No No
SPAIN Legislative Home arrest
Availability of accommodation
Conduct in prison
Elderly
Offence
No 1,174 releases 58983 71.7 Yes Yes
SRI LANKA Executive Release on parole/bail Offence
Sentence served/left
Other
Yes 2,961 releases 29164 247 Yes Yes
SUDAN Executive Early release Offence
Other
Unclear 4,217 releases 21000 255 Yes Yes
SYRIA Executive Pardon Offence
Other
Yes Unclear 10599 65.6 Yes Yes
TANZANIA Executive Pardon Unclear Unclear 3,717 releases 35803 115.7 No No
THAILAND Prison administration Temporary release
Early release

Conduct in prison
Offence
No 8,000 releases 375148 144.8 Yes No
TOGO Executive Pardon Sentence served/left Unclear 1,407 releases 5277 194 Yes Yes
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO Executive Early release
Offence
Sentence served/left
Yes - drug trafficking
No - possession of cannabis <30 gr, possession of smoking device, cannabis cultivation
380 considered for release 3999 81.8 No No
TUNISIA Executive Pardon
Home arrest
Sentence served/left Unclear 2,000+ releases 22663 127.6 No No
TURKEY Legislative Early release
Temporary release

Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Women with young children
Yes 90,000~ releases expected 269806 122.5 Yes Yes
UGANDA Prison administration Early release
Elderly
Offence
Pregnant women
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
Yes 800+ releases 55229 319.2 No No
UK - England and Wales Executive **measure now abolished**
Temporary release

Pregnant women
Risk
Sentence served/left
Women with children in prison
Other
Yes (only children in prison) 57+ releases 82236 96.7 Yes Yes
UK - NORTHERN IRELAND Executive Early release
Availability of accommodation
Sentence served/left
No 200~ releases expected 1504 79 Yes No
UK - SCOTLAND Executive Early release
Offence
Pre-trial detention
Risk
Sentence
Sentence served/left
No 348 releases 7984 103.4 Yes Yes
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Executive Early release Offence Unclear 4,000+ releases 9826 158.9 Yes No
URUGUAY Executive Home arrest Offence No 150+ requests
Releases: unclear
11755 99.3 Yes No
USA - FEDERAL Executive Home arrest Conduct in prison
Elderly
Offence
Risk
Other
No 4,234 releases 225801 99.8 Yes Yes
USA - NATIONAL **varies by state** **varies by state** **varies by state** No 26,000+ releases 1975665 unknown Yes yes
USA - California Executive
Judicial
Early release
Release on parole/bail
Other

Offence
Pre-trial detention
Sentence served/left
No 3,500+ released (jails)
Jail population decrease: -5,000 March-April
213838 138 Yes Yes
USA - Colorado Judicial
Executive
Early release
Release on parole/bail


Availability of accommodation
Conduct in prison
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence served/left
Other
No 450+ releases 31825 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - Connecticut Executive Early release Availability of accommodation
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Other
No Prison population decrease: - 2,000 March-June 13830 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - Kentucky Executive Early release
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence served/left
No 900 releases expected 36932 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - Michigan Judicial Other
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Pregnant women
Risk
Sentence served/left
Other
No 5,000+ releases (jails) 56625 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - New Jersey Executive Expedite proceedings
Elderly
Health conditions
Offence
Sentence served/left
No
146 releases
1,000 releases expected
34340 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - Ohio Judicial
Prison administration
Expedite proceedings
Other
Offence No 1,000~ releases 70590 Unknown Yes Yes
USA - Pennsylvania Judicial
Executive
Early release
Expedite proceedings
Availability of accommodation
Offence
Sentence served/left
No 2,300+ releases 85308 Unknown Yes Yes
VENEZUELA
Executive
Judicial
Early release Offence
Sentence served/left
No 504 releases 57096 153.9 No No
YEMEN Houthi rebels
Executive
Early relase
Conduct in prison
Sentence served/left
Other
Unclear 2,361 releases by Houthi rebels
500 releases by the government
14000 Unknown No No
ZAMBIA Executive Pardon Elderly Health conditions Other Unclear 2,984 pardons
2,000 pre-trial granted unconditional bail
22823 303 No No
ZIMBABWE Executive Pardon Elderly
Offence
Sentence served/left
No 5,000~ releases expected 22000 129.4 Yes No
Last updated: 16 June 2020

Notes on categories

This page was last updated on 17 June 2020. Harm Reduction International thanks Meron Fikru for her important contribution, and all the individuals and organisation that provided information, including: AdvocAid, Antigone, the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, Corporación Humanas, Defensoria del Pueblo de Ecuador, Irish Penal Reform Trust, KHANA, KontraS, Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia, Odhikar, PRAWA, Projecte Home Catalunya, Transform, and YouthRise.

For questions, information, or the full list of sources, please contact giada.girelli@hri.global

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