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COVID-19 and Europe’s Prison System

Executive Summary

The recent developments with COVID-19 in the prisons across Europe pose serious problems. The spread of the virus in the prisons is highly likely to increase, causing problems amongst prisoner health, and available officers to maintain order and security within those facilities. However, there are several effects and other factors to consider in this situation. Many prisoners are likely to be capitalising on this situation for their own interests. In addition, releasing prisoners on COVID-19 concerns can exacerbate current issues being noticed with crime across Europe.



Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, reports have shown incidents relating to prison systems across the continent. As shown in Figure 1, open source reporting on COVID-19 has seen riots, protests and prison authorities trying to address the spread of the virus through measures focussing on releasing prisoners who are at risk of the virus. The types and reasons for the releases have varied. In cases of Northern Ireland and Ireland, the releases have been carried out in order to anticipate an outbreak of COVID-19, no details appear to be available on the types of prisoners released. The UK has taken an approach of releasing prisoners who are not ‘high risk,’ they must have served at least 50% of their sentence and must not have been incarcerated due to COVID-19 offences. Elsewhere, it has been difficult.

While this report is focussing on Europe, this issue is not limited to this continent. The virus has been placing pressure on prison systems across the globe with similar incidents as shown in Figure 1 also occurring in North and South America (Intelligence Fusion, 2020).

Incidents relating to COVID-19 that are affecting prisons and/or prisoners across Europe.
Figure 1: Incidents relating to COVID-19 that are affecting prisons and/or prisoners across Europe. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

Speaking from prior experience as an Intelligence Collator in the Western Australia (WA) prison system, there is more to these incidents than just the threat of COVID-19. Prisons are complex environments. The various threats and interests within prison systems can pose serious consequences to the order and security within them and to the community if not assessed and mitigated. This intelligence report therefore aims to provide a quick analysis of these developments through looking at what is happening; figuring out what it means through contextual reporting on the prison system alongside my own experience; and assessing what could happen next.


What’s happening?

Map highlighting the release of prisoners to prevent COVID-19 in the UK
Figure 2: Incidents of prisoners being released in the UK and riots within prisons across Europe. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

Incidents logged show that COVID-19 has been placing considerable pressure on prisons across the continent. The concern is the virus spreading amongst prison populations. Reactions to this situation have been riots and protests from prisoners (refusal to go into cells, roof ascensions, tension/unrest from prisoners suspected of having the virus being transferred to other prisons). Italy, the nation hit the hardest from COVID-19 in Europe, has seen numerous riots over measures to contain the virus; such as suspending visits.

A map highlighting the incidents of rioting in prisons across Europe because of COVID-19 measures.
Figure 3: A map highlighting the incidents of rioting in prisons across Europe because of COVID-19 measures. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

COMMENT. I have not experienced a prison riot while working in the prison system, but a riot which occurred in Greenough Regional Prison caused significant pressure on all other facilities in the WA prison system in its aftermath, exacerbating other major issues. In addition to wider system pressure, riots provide an opportunity for inmates to escape, and they can become a threat to the wider community (ABC News, 2018; AAP, 2019; Adshead, 2018).

Essentially, riots can have a ‘butterfly effect.’ A riot in one prison – whether it is within a residential block or the entire facility – causes significant pressure on the wider prison system. The destruction caused can make that facility partially or completely inoperable. With this reduced capability, it is necessary to move prisoners into other areas and facilities in order to avoid follow up riots or other significant threats manifesting. This places significant pressure on placement and capacity across other prisons, which in turn increases the risks posed by the threats within those facilities. When a riot in one prison can cause so much damage and pressure, the fallout from riots in multiple prisons causes even more pressure. COMMENT ENDS.

In addition to the riots and demonstrations, reporting has also indicated that authorities – like in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and Portugal – have been releasing prisoners deemed to be at risk of from the virus (such as elderly inmates and prisoners with health conditions which put them at risk from the virus), to reduce pressure on staff and officers or to depopulate overcrowded prisons in anticipation of incoming prisoners arrested for COVID-19 related offences (e.g. – spitting/coughing on police or emergency workers; violating lockdowns; burglaries/thefts, etc), but also as a means to reduce the number of inmates in the prisons to which COVID-19 could spread to. The methods of release appear to vary. Reports have mentioned examples of home detention and electronic tagging.

COMMENT. Reports regarding Europe do not appear to consider activism in the justice system. It was a rare and indirect issue I came across in WA. Specifically, the promotion of a narrative of releasing prisoners or reducing their sentences as a justifiable course of action. It has come from officials within the system as well as activist groups (for example, versions of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). The pressure of COVID-19 would provide an opportunity for such activism to achieve its goals. A flaw about such activism is there is little known accountability towards these individuals/groups when it comes to the effects of recidivism (i.e. – these groups or decision makers face little/no consequences when a released prisoner reoffends). Additionally, reasons for release based on an assessed low risk of reoffending and/or good behaviour can be based on incorrect or unavailable information. Furthermore, as shown in Florida, USA recently, the early release of prisoners does not guarantee they will not re-offend in a manner which is more severe than they were originally incarcerated for. There is a likelihood the early release of prisoners can jeopardise witnesses, victims or even the community in general. COMMENT ENDS. 


Major Issues in the Prison System

When considering the context of prisons in Europe, the following needs to be considered:

  • Overcrowding – as mentioned by a report from Prison Reform International, “overcrowding or congestion, as it is called in some countries, is the biggest single problem facing prison systems (2012, p.1).” This is partially supported by what appears to be recent data from a separate source on prisons. Examining the data on the countries mentioned in Figures 1 and 2 (rounded up to the nearest whole), Italy’s prison capacity stands at 120%; France at 116%; for the UK it’s England and Wales at 111%, Scotland at 93% and Northern Ireland at 80%;  Greece is at 111%; Republic of Ireland at 97%; Portugal at 98%; Romania at 113%; Spain at 80%; the Netherlands stands at 73%; and Germany is at 80% (Prison Studies.org, 2020). COMMENT. Overcrowding did become an issue at points when I worked in the WA prison system. More prisoners in one facility can heighten tension and hinder efforts to maintain order and security. Many countries mentioned in incidents do appear to have an issue with overcrowding or are close to that situation. Although the above numbers would indicate there are a few exceptions; countries like Spain and Germany appear to have little or no problem with overcrowding. For the countries which do have issues with overcrowding, the COVID-19 outbreak would exacerbate an already significant problem but could also be a quick justification to temporarily address overcrowding. COMMENT ENDS.
  • Recidivism – repeat offenders poses another risk; resulting in more or repeated victims of crime and exacerbating the problem of prison overcrowding. Obtaining data on recidivism has been difficult but a recent study indicates that different European countries have rates which vary over time. For example, reconviction rates indicate that France has a rate between 26%-61%; Germany is at 46%; Republic of Ireland is at 45%; a ‘re-arrest’ rate for Italy stands at 28%; the Netherlands is between 35%-51%; and countries within the UK vary between 37%-48% (Yukhnenko et al., 2019). COMMENT. The data and circumstances indicate that recidivism is an issue but just how significant is difficult to judge. From prior experience, recidivism was an issue in WA due to noticing prisoners which had just been released being incarcerated a short time later. COMMENT ENDS.

Further Observations

  • There are a few other observations which are largely based on prior experience but can’t be reflected in data or studies. I came to notice the following about many prisoners I came across which warrant mentioning when looking at these COVID-19 issues:
  • Many prisoners are opportunists. Prisoners – almost regardless of their offence – have a keen sense in identifying opportunities to capitalise on. They are very quick to see how a situation can benefit their interests and will act;
  • A lot of prisoners are brilliant manipulators. Whether individually or in groups, subtly or bluntly, prisoners excel at manipulating people or situations to their benefit; whether it is gaining a desired cell placement, corrupting prison staff or successfully pressuring managers to prevent scrutiny towards illicit activities;
  • Many of the prisoners I came across had a high sense of entitlement. Prisoners – for the most part – view incarceration as a part of their life rather than a consequence of crime. This view tends to instil a sense of entitlement towards provisions such as visits, regular phone calls and routine. A change in any of those three – for whatever valid reason – sees tension or hostility arise quickly. This sentiment often exacerbates the two prior mentioned observations.


COVID-10 and the Prison System in Europe

In a prior report, incidents led to the following assessment regarding COVID-19 and crime in Europe “with the need for law enforcement across Europe to enforce lockdowns, quarantines and other types of security operations to address COVID-19; this is likely stretching law enforcement resources and enabling the increase in other types of crimes such as burglary/theft; with an emphasis on theft (Pratten and Fevrier, 2020),” and as shown in Figure 4, “Criminals are taking advantage of how contagious the virus is and are using it as a weapon against police and other victims by spitting/coughing. This trend appears to be increasing due to the likely outcome that any officer/victim who is spat/coughed on will need to self-isolate or be quarantined in order to minimise the chances of the virus spreading further (Pratten and Fevrier, 2020).”

Map highlighting various incidents of assault due to COVID-19 in Europe
Figure 4: Incidents of assault across Europe as criminals begin to use COVID-19 as a weapon. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

In addition, separate Intelligence Fusion reporting has shown a current trend in attacking phone towers based on a conspiracy theory towards the rollout of 5G phone towers. A key piece of analysis from this report is “police have been unable to catch perpetrators in majority of cases, which means there is the potential for follow up attacks by the same perpetrators who become emboldened by their success and attacks increasing in Europe (McCabe, 2020),” and among the assessments was, “it seems highly likely that these attacks will continue and spread across Europe, especially as the casualty figures increase due to COVID-19, which will serve as a driver for the attackers (McCabe, 2020).”

Map highlighting a selection of incidents that show a rise in attacks against 5G masts amidst the conspiracy theory regarding COVID-19
Figure 5: Map highlighting a selection of incidents that show a rise in attacks against 5G masts amidst the conspiracy theory regarding COVID-19. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

COMMENT. When considering all above the above, the prisoners being released are being released into the community during a time where police resources are under greater pressure due to spitting/coughing attacks and there are attacks on telecommunications infrastructure occurring based on a conspiracy theory and are highly likely to continue and spread across Europe. With recidivism being an issue there is a situation where prisoners being released could be adding more people to those already causing problems faced across Europe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, there is a possibility the release of prisoners and the various protests and riots within prisons aren’t necessarily a consequence of COVID-19 but could be prisoners attempting to manipulate conditions into their favour and for activists to take advantage of an opportunity to see their interests realised. COMMENT ENDS.


The recent developments with COVID-19 in the prisons across Europe poses serious problems. The spread of the virus in the prisons is highly likely to increase; causing problems amongst prisoner health and is highly likely to pose threats to the numbers of available officers to maintain order and security within those facilities.

However, there are several effects and other factors to consider in this situation. The riots and protests by prisoners are likely  to be more than concerns about COVID-19, it is likely the spread of the virus is an opportunity for many prisoners to capitalise on, and they are possibly carrying out riots and protests in order to manipulate circumstances in their favour. As for what circumstances in their favour are, there are several possibilities; less scrutiny towards illicit activities, applying pressure to manipulate cell placements, removing any kind of COVID-19 containment measures which may hinder social visits, routines, etc. Any kind of actions taken by prisoners which cite COVID-19 concerns are likely  to have an ulterior motive(s) which if not identified, pose the risk of further issues within the prisons.

The release of prisoners over concerns of contracting COVID-19 is also another complex issue. The spread of the virus is an issue to consider, however, it is possible that releasing prisoners based on COVID-19 concerns also furthers the interests of activists who have wanted prisoners to be released before the pandemic. And this pandemic currently provides an opportunity for them to capitalise on. While no incidents have been noticed in Europe yet, the latest reporting in Florida USA shows it is plausible released prisoners – regardless of whether they are low risk or otherwise – pose a threat of not just re-offending but re-offending in a way which is worse than the crime they were originally incarcerated for.

Additionally, with the situation regarding recidivism, It is possible the release of these prisoners will exacerbate the issues of crime across Europe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Crime across Europe has seen assaults, burglaries/thefts, arson attacks on 5G infrastructure and a variety of other incidents which are placing increased pressure of police as they cope with having to enforce lockdowns but also carry out traditional police work. Releasing prisoners into the community during this moment in time will add to an already problematic situation.


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AAP (2019) Riot Prompts High-Tech Fence For Jail [online]. Available from: https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/wa/greenough-regional-prison-fence-to-be-fortified-after-violent-riot-ng-b881186377z (Accessed 18 April 2020).

ABC News (2018) Public Warned Five Prisoners Still On The Run After Mass Break Out From WA Jail [online]. Available from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-24/prisoners-break-out-of-greenough-prison-wa/10031230 (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Adshead, G. (2018) Warning Issued Before Greenough Riot, Jailbreak [online]. Available from: https://thewest.com.au/politics/state-politics/warning-issued-before-greenough-riot-jailbreak-ng-b881033053z (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Intelligence Fusion (2020) Insight Weekly: COVID-19 Global Update – Trends, Threats and The Future. [online]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC4DuJtNIBM (Accessed 17 April 2020).

McCabe, M. (2020) Attacks Against Telecommunications Infrastructure Linked to COVID-19 5G Conspiracy Theory in UK and Europe.

Penal Reform International (2012) 10-Point Plan to Address Prison Overcrowding [online]. Available from: https://www.penalreform.org/issues/prison-conditions/key-facts/overcrowding/ (Accessed 17 April 2020).

PRATTEN M. & Fevrier, V. (2020) The Correlation between COVID-19 and Crime in Europe [online]. Available from: https://www.intelligencefusion.co.uk/blog/the-correlation-between-covid-19-and-crime-in-europe (Accessed 18 April 2020).

Prison Studies.org (2020) Highest to Lowest – Occupancy level (based on official capacity) [online]. Available from: https://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/occupancy-level?field_region_taxonomy_tid=14 (Accessed 17 April 2020).

Yukhnenko, D. et al. (2019) A systematic review of criminal recidivism rates worldwide: 3-year update. Wellcome Open Research. [Online] 4. [online]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6743246/ (Accessed 17 April 2020).


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