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16 March 202112 minute read

DLA Piper assists vulnerable individuals in prisons around the world

Governments around the globe have reduced prison populations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated one million, mostly non-violent offenders, being granted early release according to a new report by global law firm, DLA Piper with the support of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT). The global study of prisoner release programs in 53 jurisdictions found that many governments took swift action to protect the health and safety of corrections staff, prisoners and the wider community, with over 475,000 people released from prisons and other places of detention between March and July 2020 alone.

The first programs were introduced in March 2020, as the pandemic began to surge, in order to limit transmission of the virus in prisons where overcrowding and poor ventilation can place prisoners and prison staff at greater risk of infection. Some of the most successful early release programs recorded by the study were in Iran (104,000+), India (68,000+), Iraq (62,000+), Ethiopia (41,000+) and Indonesia (38,000+).

With more than 11 million people detained in prisons in 2019, the programs have shown that governments can act quickly to mitigate the risk of transmission in prisons. The report found that programs where certain prisoners are permanently released can be a highly effective strategy, provided they are implemented in a structured, transparent and ordered manner.

Key findings of the global study:

  • Legal basis for release: While all 53 jurisdictions had existing mechanisms allowing for the release of prisoners, only 40% relied on those existing measures, while 28% relied on new release measures (created in response to COVID-19) and 32% relied on a combination.
  • Release of children: Only a third of jurisdictions took active measures to release children from detention. The largest reported releases were in Indonesia (939), India (665) and Bangladesh (489).
  • Conditional release: Conditions were often imposed as part of the government’s agreement to release prisoners. 42% of jurisdictions required prisoners to be of good behavior and not commit any further offenses post release.
  • Support measures: A third of jurisdictions did not report any support measures available to prisoners upon release (pre or post COVID-19). The remaining two thirds reported some level of support for prisoners including programs related to accommodation, financial support, counselling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and employment.
  • Recidivism: Early analysis of recidivism rates for released prisoners suggests that the release programs have been generally successful with below average recidivism rates.
  • Availability of data: Only a quarter of jurisdictions published timely, disaggregated data on prisoner releases.

After early calls for prison population reduction by World Health Organization and others, governments around the world each began designing and implementing measures to reduce prison populations, with varying degrees of success. The report serves as a tool for governments and policy makers to identify and implement the most effective strategies for release.  

Release eligibility was commonly based on three key criteria: the offense committed by the prisoner, the nature or status nature of the prisoner’s sentence and whether the prisoner had particular vulnerabilities. However, in a third of jurisdictions, release eligibility was further linked to the availability of accommodation for a prisoner on release and their ability to be financially independent.

While it is too soon for a formal evaluation of these release programs, low recidivism rates across the study suggests that released prisoners have not reoffended at high rates. This indicates that release programs can be implemented swiftly and, at least in a few jurisdictions, governments have already confirmed their programs will continue beyond the pandemic.

Nicolas Patrick, International Pro Bono and Responsible Partner at DLA Piper, commented: “In a growing number of jurisdictions around the world, the need for prisoner population reduction is recognised by policy makers of all political persuasions. The cost of mass incarceration is the key factor driving this trend. The pandemic provided a unique opportunity for governments to pursue this agenda, as prisoner population reduction became viewed as a necessary measure to manage the health risks for correctional staff, prisoners and the wider community. The most significant reductions were achieved through efforts which focussed on non-violent offenders and prisoners with short custodial sentences or short periods remaining on long custodial sentences.”

Audrey Olivier-Muralt, APT Deputy Secretary General, said: “There is an established link between overcrowding and risks of torture and ill-treatment. Early release schemes are an important tool to reduce overcrowding and thereby contribute to reducing ill-treatment in prisons. They have been fundamental in safeguarding the health and safety of detainees and staff during COVID-19 and we hope they will continue to be implemented after the pandemic.”

DLA Piper’s involvement in this global study complements the commitment that DLA Piper has made to assisting vulnerable people who are incarcerated in the United States.  In collaboration with the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, DLA Piper has helped more than 30 people who are serving time in federal prison seek early release based on their age, medical condition, and time served.  In numerous cases, DLA Piper has won compassionate release or home confinement for clients, ensuring that they can receive the medical care that they require and avoid prison conditions that put them at heightened risk from the COVID-19 virus. 

Lisa Dewey, US Pro Bono Partner at DLA Piper, commented:  “DLA Piper has been honored to support the work of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, FAMM, NACDL and other allied organizations through the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse.  Our lawyers and staff from across the country have consistently raised their hands to assist the most vulnerable people who are living in conditions where social distancing and other public health precautions are not possible. We are proud to have secured release for people who are incarcerated and require significant medical care, including the parents who face life-threatening conditions and were serving long sentences for non-violence offenses.”

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said:  “The COVID pandemic created a crisis in the nation’s prisons, with prisoners five times more likely to sicken or die than members of the general population. One of the few options for elderly, terminally ill, high risk prisoners, or prisoners with disabilities was to apply for compassionate release. DLA Piper answered the call for volunteer lawyers to assist the most vulnerable prisoners. Not only did the firm take cases and provide essential representation and advocacy, it dedicated significant resources to the pro bono effort by investigating and screening cases so that we could place those with the most urgent need. DLA Piper demonstrated the best of the profession at a time of crisis.”

Read the full report