Lock up or release? Coronavirus, prisoner quandary


The rapid spread of coronavirus is piling pressure on criminal justice systems globally and seen a flood of prisoner releases, with the US, Canada and Germany joining Iran in releasing thousands of detainees.

Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, announced on Wednesday it would release 1 000 prisoners near the end of their sentences, with sex offenders and violent inmates excluded.

The aim is to free up cells so quarantine areas can be set up for inmates contracting the disease, with many expected given the confinement in prison facilities and the ease with which the virus spreads.

In Canada, 1 000 inmates in Ontario state were released last week and lawyers are working with prosecutors to release more from provincial jails accelerating bail hearings, among other steps.

“The concern is a jail sentence can potentially become a death sentence for those there,” said Daniel Brown, a Toronto lawyer.

The US state New Jersey plans to temporarily release around 1 000 low risk inmates and New York City’s Board of Corrections, an independent oversight body, called on the mayor to release around 2 000.

Similar steps are being taken in Britain, Poland and Italy, with authorities set to monitor those released to ensure no surge in criminal activity or fuel social unrest at a time of national unease.

Such measures are possible in developed countries and may help stem the spread of a disease that has infected more than 420 000 people and killed nearly 19 000, they pose challenges elsewhere.

In Iran, where around 190 000 people are incarcerated and the coronavirus has infected 25 000 people, government will temporarily release 85 000 prisoners, with 10 000 granted pardons.

Depending on how long the crisis lasts – Iran is talking about a second wave of infections – criminal justice experts say it may prove difficult to manage a large number of freed prisoners or re-incarcerate them.

“The longer this goes on and the more desperate the situation becomes, it may lead to bolder decisions for the release of more violent or more dangerous criminals,” said Keith Ditcham, senior research fellow in organised crime and policing at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

“What do you do when normality returns? You have undesirables either in your country or travelling globally. It puts the whole law enforcement effort back by a significant margin.”


In some countries, the fear is inmates won’t be released. In Venezuela, human rights groups are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among a prison population of 110 000 in highly unsanitary conditions.

In Bogota, Colombia, a coronavirus prison riot left 23 prisoners dead and scores injured. Similar unrest struck detention facilities from Italy to Sri Lanka.

Sudan was releasing more than 4 000 prisoners as a precaution against the disease.

In Brazil, 1 400 prisoners escaped from four facilities ahead of a lockdown, with 600 recaptured so far, authorities said.

Those calling for prisoners release in the hope it will prevent deaths face problems. In Egypt, four women were detained after demonstrating for releases. They were released after questioning.

“What we’re seeing is a seismic change in how law enforcement goes about its business in the coming months,” said RUSI’s Ditcham. “The lesser of two evils may be to release all but the most violent and dangerous.”