Europe Released 128,000 Prisoners to Prevent Virus Outbreaks

The release of vulnerable European prisoners at the start of the pandemic — and limiting contact between those still locked up — helped slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, a new report found.  

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

(CN) — One of the more memorably chaotic episodes at the outset of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, were scenes of riots taking place in prisons.

In early March, as Italy learned it was under siege from a dangerous virus, inmates at dozens of prisons clashed with guards, set fires and ransacked wards. Terrified of contracting the disease in overcrowded prisons, they demanded to be released to the safety of their families on the outside.

Three months later, Europe has avoided devastating outbreaks in its prisons and a new report suggests the release of about 128,000 prisoners — with about 103,000 of those inmates in Turkey — helped prevent a wave of infections. Other factors played a part too, such as keeping prisoners even further confined by limiting contact between inmates.

On Thursday, the Council of Europe, an international organization that established the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, found that 20 of its member states released prisoners to prevent outbreaks. The report was largely based on data from April 15, about one month into the pandemic.

The Council of Europe report did not provide data on the number of infections and deaths found in prisons across the Europe Union and in countries outside the bloc that are members of the council and fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, such as Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan and Serbia.

Italy released 5,739 prisoners, or about 9% of its prison population, the report said. Nearly 2,000 inmates were allowed to serve the remainder of their sentences under house detention and 420 other inmates were granted semi-liberty, the report said. Authorities released inmates deemed at risk from the coronavirus because they were old and sick. Italy is among the countries in Western Europe with prisons deemed overcrowded, the report said.

The release of prisoners in Italy caused some consternation — and allegations of corruption — because among those allowed out were numerous mafia bosses.

Antigone, an Italian advocacy group for prisoners, said in a recent report that as of May 15, 119 inmates and 162 prison workers were infected by the coronavirus and that four prisoners and four workers died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

In comparison with the United States, Italy has done a good job of containing the disease in its prisons. The Antigone report said that as of a month ago, the U.S. had reported 29,814 infected inmates and 9,231 infected workers. In the U.S., 415 detainees and 38 workers had died, according to the report.  

American prisons have not released large numbers of inmates during the pandemic, with its total prison population declining by just 1.8%, the Antigone report said.

The report said France reported in early May that 118 detainees and 292 workers had been infected. By May 12, Spain had reported 60 infected inmates and 318 infected prison personnel. The Antigone report did not provide data on deaths in France and Spain.

The Council of Europe report said France released 10,188 prisoners due to the pandemic, or about 14.4% of its prison population.

In Spain, 4,356 prisoners were released due to the pandemic, the Council of Europe report said. Outside of Catalonia, Spain released about 6% of its prison population. Catalonia let 17% of its prison population out of confinement to prevent the virus’ spread, the report said.

Ireland and Portugal were among other countries that released a lot of prisoners to prevent outbreaks, the council said. Germany and the United Kingdom did not provide data, according to the report.

Turkey, though, was the country that released by far the most prisoners to prevent outbreaks. By emptying its prisons of 102,944 detainees, Turkey released about a third of its prison population, the report said.

The prison population in Turkey swelled after a failed coup attempt in 2016. Since then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has rounded up thousands of suspected sympathizers of the plot to overthrow his government.

By April 15, Russia had not released any prisoners due to the pandemic, the report said. Russia’s outbreak is one of the worst in the world, but its epidemic came later than the rest of Europe.

Turkey and Russia have the highest prison population rates among the 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe. As of April 15, each had more than 325 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Turkey released its 103,000 prisoners after April 15, the report noted.

By comparison, the incarceration rate in the U.S. stands at 655 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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