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‘No Drugs, No Families, Lots Of Stress’: Prisons, Drugs And COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many areas of international life and commerce, including drug markets and the drug trade. Relaxed borders are key to the smooth functioning of both licit and illicit markets, and the restrictions enacted to suppress the spread of COVID-19 have had an impact on the supply, distribution and price of drugs, as well as the health and wellbeing of people in prison.

A recent report by the EMCDDA and Europol found the COVID-19 pandemic has ‘had a temporary disruptive impact on the drug market leading to shortages of and higher prices for some drugs’. While illicit markets are resilient, the report notes that drugs such as cannabis and heroin are experiencing inconsistent availability and inflated prices in many localities and countries. Reports from Hungary and Malta confirm disruptions in the availability of drugs locally, including cannabis, MDMA and synthetic cannabinoids.  

Outside of Europe, reports have noted similar disruptions of both the drug and precursor markets in Mexico and China.  Prison drug markets are not exempt from these wider developments, and market disruptions are contributing to the already extreme impacts of COVID-19 on prison conditions worldwide.  


Vulnerable to viral contagion


In April, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe raised urgent concerns about the treatment of prisoners and detainees in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Identifying persons in detention as some of the ‘most vulnerable to viral contagion’, the Commissioner stated that ‘the pandemic strikes in a context of overcrowded prisons and poor detention conditions in cramped, collective cells, with unsatisfactory health services, as well as higher rates of infectious and chronic diseases among detainees, such as tuberculosis, diabetes and HIV.’ To address the risk of prison overcrowding fuelling the spread of COVID-19, over fifty countries have implemented small and large-scale programmes of prisoner release.  

One aspect of prison regimes that has been among the most affected by the pandemic is prison visitations. Given the risks posed by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in closed custody settings, prison systems around the world have understandably been suspending or restricting visiting from family and friends.  Visiting restrictions or suspensions are reported in countries including the UK, the USA, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia, Thailand, Belize, Mexico and Guyana, to name but a few.  While such restrictions are a sensible response to the risk of rapid COVID-19 spread in prisons, it is one that demands both health and human rights scrutiny, especially as COVID-19 is a virus the world will be dealing with for some time to come.


Extreme isolation and stress


Maintaining contact with family and friends is essential for prisoners' lives and well-being. Prison is a socially isolating environment, with many regimes allowing only limited out-of-cell time and interactions with family even before the pandemic.  COVID-19 restrictions on visits will necessarily mean an increase in this isolation, and with it an increased vulnerability to depression and other related mental health issues.  

Many governments have highlighted the negative mental health impacts of the social isolation experienced by the general public during the COVID-19 lockdown.  These impacts are multiplied exponentially for prisoners, for whom the loss of family visiting exacerbates the already extreme isolation and stress of detention.  In some prison systems, detainees rely on visits from family not only for emotional comfort and support, but also to provide them with basic necessities – food, toiletries, clothing, etc. – that the prison itself does not provide. A number of countries – including Brazil, Italy, Egypt, Indonesia and Jordan – have seen sometimes violent protests and uprisings by prisoners in the wake of the curtailment of visiting.


The illicit economy


The restrictions on visiting are also having impacts on the illicit economy in prisons. It is estimated that one in five people detained globally is incarcerated due to a drug charge, making the impact of the war on drugs a driver of both mass incarceration and the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention. While certainly frowned upon by prison systems, visitors from the outside represent one of the sources of drugs into prisons, and the reduction of contacts from the outside is having an impact on prison drug markets.

While the easy availability of drugs in prisons pre-COVID is well documented, in places of detention the impact of the disruption of wider drug markets, exacerbated by the suspension of visits, has caused significant reductions in drug availability. EMCDDA/Europol reports that COVID-19 visiting restrictions have ‘indirectly led to a decrease in the availability of drugs in some prisons’.  


A vicious cycle


The lack of purposeful activities and the boredom of lock-up has been identified as ‘an important factor in the use of drugs in prison’. The current situation of long periods of lock-down, coupled with no visitors or activities (to ensure social distancing), generates a vicious cycle of more social isolation, more boredom, more tension – one in which even the temporary relief offered by drug use is increasingly unavailable. As described in one Australian newspaper, COVID-19 has created a situation in prisons of ‘No drugs, no families, lots of stress.’ 

One example is Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland, where the ban on visitors has decimated the prison drug trade, leaving prisoners with heavy withdrawal symptoms from drugs such as the synthetic cannabinoid ‘Spice’. In Australia, the reduction in drug availability due to restrictions on visiting has led to increased drug prices, and to increased violence in the prisons related to control of the dwindling market. Similarly, it is predicted that UK prisons will experience an increase in withdrawal and of tensions as drug availability shrinks. 

Some will see the disruption of prison drug markets as a positive development in the war on drugs. Yet it is also one that will contribute further to the negative impacts on the health and well-being of prisoners, and the overall prison regime, exacerbated by COVID-19.


* Ellie Harding is a final year student in Criminology at Swansea University. Dr Rick Lines is Associate Professor of Criminology and Human Rights, School of Law, Swansea University.

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