Dozens of Countries Exclude People on Drug Charges From COVID-19 Decarceration

July 7, 2020

Prisons are nearly universally recognized as petri dishes for the coronavirus. In an attempt to slow the spread, some countries have instituted decarceration policies for certain populations—like those who are elderly, immunocompromised and/or have served most of their sentence.

But about one-quarter of all countries that have adopted “decongestion measures,” as Harm Reduction International (HRI) calls them in a new report, consider prisoners with certain drug charges—and even people living with addiction in at least one country—to be ineligible for release, regardless of their age or health status.

Between March and June 2020, at least 109 countries rolled out decongestion measures, like pardons, early releases, home confinements, and parole or bail. Yet 27 of them, mostly in Africa and Asia, refused to include people charged with nonviolent drug-law violations. That flies in the face of a United Nations human rights rapporteur’s recommendation for countries to release such prisoners, who comprise 21 percent of the world’s 11 million incarcerated people.

Sri Lanka seems to be the only country to completely bar incarcerated people who are “addicted to drugs” from COVID-19-related releases. The South Asian nation has been waging a bloody drug war, making use of the death penalty, as inspired by the campaign pushed by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines—another country that is not releasing drug prisoners as a result of the pandemic.

These two countries’ “exclusion can be seen as a continuation of extremely repressive anti-drug campaigns,” Giada Girelli of HRI told Filter. “The sustained and pervasive stigmatization of people who use drugs also allows governments not to have to explain why drug offenses are a basis for exclusion from release.”

Even without the exclusions of drug-law violations, decarceration efforts have been far from successful. As of June 24, the world’s prison population had only dropped by 6 percent. Some countries’ numbers have been particularly shameful: The United Kingdom only ended up releasing 57 out of the 4,000 prisoners due to get out through a merely month-long program; Mexico and Cambodia have each freed no prisoners at all.

“This falls significantly short of expectations and the significant political commitments made in the name of public health,” stated the HRI report.

While decarceration seems to have flopped on a global scale, other exciting drug policy wins are popping up around the world, like increased access to opioid use disorder medication and making available a safe supply. The disparate outcomes, Girelli suspects, could come down to how change is executed: “[D]ecisions on harm reduction and decisions on punishment are taken by different authorities, and while the health authorities have some freedom to introduce ‘technical’ changes—for example, extending methadone doses—decisions on decarceration are often taken by the executive branch, making them more political and thus more thoroughly scrutinized by the public.”

Despite a crisis upending daily life on a planetary scale, entrenched punitive systems seem to be chugging along.

“[G]overnments are naturally inclined, especially when it comes to drugs, to prioritize punishment and repression over health. This is apparent when we look at the punitive approach to drugs predominant worldwide, where health-based approaches are sacrificed in favor of criminal justice responses, despite them being less effective and more harmful,” said Girelli. “Measures adopted during COVID-19 remain within, and as such are influenced by, this punitive framework.”


Photograph inside a United Kingdom prison by UK Ministry of Justice

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