European responses to coronavirus in prisons

Friday, 24 April 2020

How does England and Wales compare in its response to coronavirus in prisons to the rest of Europe? 

We have compiled a list of European state responses to the virus in prisons based on 'Covid-19: What's happening in European prisons?' by the European Prison Observatory and 'Coronavirus: Prison fever' by Prison Insider. We note that there is a difference between announcements made and actual implementation of measures taken. 

England and Wales

England and Wales has announced the temporary release of pregnant women and women in mother and baby units who pose low risk. They also announced the temporary release of up to 4,000 other low-risk prisoners on electronic tags. Only 17 pregnant women and 14 other prisoners have so far been released under this programme.


Albania has announced the temporary release of 600 prisoners: those imprisoned for minor offences, the elderly and sufferers of chronic conditions.


Austria has postponed the execution of prison sentences of three years or less for people who are deemed not particularly dangerous.


On 30 March, Belgium’s Central Prison Supervisory Council announced that it encouraged prisons to implement measures which would drastically limit the entries to, and increase the exits from, prison. As of 6 April, Belgium has seen the prison population fall by ten per cent.


Croatia is delaying sentences for people with health problems until they have recovered and for those who have been outside the country for 14 days.


Cyprus announced the intention to release 114 people who had been sentenced for up to ten years who will have completed half their sentence by 19 April. Prisoners deemed eligible will spend the rest of their sentence under house arrest using electronic monitoring.


Between 12 March and 27 April, Denmark did not receive new entries to prison from those awaiting to serve custodial sentences. From 27 April the Danish Prison and Probation Service started to gradually summon new prisoners to serve. 


Finland has postponed the execution of prison sentences of up to six months between 19 March and 19 June. They have also postponed imprionment for fine default. 


France has suspended the execution of short-term prison sentences and implemented the early release of prisoners up to two months from the end of their sentences. As of 8 April, there are 8,000 fewer prisoners: half is down to the new measures and half to the decrease in judicial activity.


Germany announced that 1,000 prisoners serving short sentences would be released in North Rhine Westphalia. Nationwide, they have suspended the execution of subsidiary penalties for fine defaults. Three federal states have suspended the execution of short prison sentences and some states have released fine default prisoners.


Greece announced plans for the early release of 1,500 inmates (those with less than a year left to serve and for minor offences). However, this would only be done once the virus enters prisons. As of 9 April, there were no reported cases of Covid-19 in prisons.


Italy announced in mid-March that prisoners with less than 18 months left to serve would be released early under supervision. This equates to approximately between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners. As of 15 April there were 6,000 fewer people in prisons than at the end of February.


Latvia has postponed the execution of prison sentences of 15 days to three months. People on suspended sentences won’t be imprisoned.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland announced at the end of March that up to 200 prisoners with less than three months left to serve would be temporarily released. This excludes those sentenced for serious crimes. As of 3 April, 100 prisoners were approved for release by 6 April.


In Norway, early release measures were approved on 16 March. In the fortnight after these measures were approved, 194 prisoners were released early. They have increased the length of sentences that can be served at home with an ankle bracelet from four to six months.


Poland announced they were considering allowing prisoners serving sentences of less than 18 months to apply to a prison to serve their sentence in the community under electronic monitoring. This potentially benefits 12,000 prisoners. It is unclear if this has been implemented.


Portugal approved legislation allowing for the pardon of prisoners aged over 65 with chronic illnesses and a pardon of two years for prisoners with up to two years left of sentence remaining or who received a sentence of less than two years. By 15 April, 1,080 prisoners had been released.

Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland released 200 prisoners with up to three months of a sentence remaining. They are considering extending this measure to those with up to six months remaining.


Slovenia tabled a bill allowing all prison sentences to be suspended for a month with the possibility to extend this further. The bill also allowed for the release of prisoners up to six months before the end of their sentence.


Prisons in Spain can decide that prisoners who are allowed out of prison some of the time, can spend all of their time out of prison with electronic monitoring.


In Sweden, first receptions to prison of newly sentenced prisoners who show signs of COVID-19 have been suspended. 


Turkey passed legislation in mid-April enabling early release of 100,000 prisoners, 45,000 of these temporarily in response to the virus and the rest permanently under legislation drafted last year. The aim is to release minimum security prisoners, those aged 65 years and older, pregnant prisoners and mothers with children under six years old.


This week Humza Yousaf announced the early release of short-term prisoners nearing the end of their sentences in Scotland, limited to those sentenced to 18 months or less and who, on 30 April, have 90 days or less to serve. This affects around 350 to 400 prisoners who meet the criteria.


Ukraine drafted a bill that would enable the early release of 900 prisoners throughout April.