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Community-led Crisis Response: Covid-19 Resilience Tools, Strategies and Lessons from the Pandemic

By Julia Jaroschewski and Sonja Peteranderl

Download the full report here.

To analyse local strategies to counter the impact of Covid-19, the think tank BuzzingCities Labs organised the online workshop series “Community-led Crisis Response: Covid-19 Resilience Tools, Strategies and Lessons from the Pandemic”. In five digital debates, international experts, practitioners and participants with diverse backgrounds explored how different at-risk communities have been particularly affected by the pandemic and developed crisis response tools and tactics to alleviate the social, economic and health impact on the ground.

One debate focused on Closed Spaces: How Prisons fight the Pandemic. Prisons worldwide have been transformed into Covid-19 hotspots during the pandemic – and in many countries medical care is inadequate. The often harsh and cramped living conditions inside prisons favour the spread of the virus, and in regions such as Latin America, prisons are also chronically overcrowded.

According to a statement by the World Health Organization, prisoners are more susceptible to infections because they live in close proximity to one another, have a greater underlying burden of disease and worse health conditions than the general population, and frequently face greater exposure to risks such as smoking, poor hygiene and weak immune defences due to stress, poor nutrition or existing diseases. 

Even before the pandemic, the number of mental health disorders among incarcerated people exceeded that of the general population – new lockdown rules are now exacerbating the mental burden. Many institutions have temporarily restricted social life and halted programmes like leisure, education, group therapy and other workshops. Visiting bans are intended to prevent or reduce the entry of Covid-19 into prisons, but they deprive many of important social support during an especially stressful, challenging time.

# Databases monitored by independent organisations can make trends and hotspots in prisons more transparent.          

Medical care for detainees and access to testing are limited, and official figures often do not reflect the reality on the ground. The collection and visualisation of available data on Covid-19 infections and deaths by independent organisations can at least begin to provide a picture of the situation and insights into hotspots and trends.

Independent data projects like the US-American platform The Marshall Project have been tracking how many people have been infected and killed by Covid-19 in prisons and how widely it has spread across the country and within each state. Information provided by family members and inmates should be cross-referenced with official data, as investigative research is necessary to uncover blind spots and misstatements.

# The health crisis reveals the need for prison reform. Problems like overcrowding have to be addressed beyond the pandemic. 


Prisons around the world could be relieved by releasing people in poor health, prisoners who pose no danger, those convicted only of minor offences or so far not at all. The crisis highlights the problem of preventive arrests that are not related to violent crimes – Brazil has the world’s third highest prison population, and 40 percent of those incarcerated are detained on a provisional arrest warrant.

According to Rosita Rijtano, a journalist at La Via Libera, the magazine of the Libera association against mafias and corruption in Italy, the Italian prison population fell by an average of 158 people per day from March to April 2020, while from April to May 2020 there was an average decline of 77 people per day. Nevertheless, the occupancy level has not gone below 107 percent. “The issue of overcrowded cells is far from being resolved,” she says. Many Mexican prisons also allow early release for vulnerable prisoners like the elderly, but because the courts had to close, many pending trial decisions came to a halt and those affected had to remain in prison.

Similarly, the US-American Prison Policy Initiative warned that by September 2020 “the initial efforts to reduce jail populations have slowed, while the small drops in state prison populations are still too little to save lives.” The policy tracker of the Prison Policy Initiative is monitoring which state and local governments are committing to strategies like early releases, reduced admissions and necessary reforms to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and jails. Such tools can document progress or the lack thereof – and help put pressure on the decision makers.

# Digital, educational and recreational offerings can at least partially compensate for the limited contact prisoners must endure during the pandemic, but there are many fundamental barriers to such initiatives.


Educational and recreational opportunities in everyday prison life can contribute to resocialisation. But during the pandemic, community projects like the Mexican theatre and arts initiative Un Grito de Libertad were banned from entering prisons. “People are totally depressed,” says Arturo Morell, the founder of the initiative. He is convinced that it will be difficult to resume projects of a certain scale for a long time: “Social projects therefore need to think strategically about how they can develop new strategies and approaches for the new normal. For example, by qualifying prison staff so they can work directly with the inmates or by using technology as a means of communication and education.”

The coronavirus crisis has emphasised the importance of additional digital services. “Banning of visitors to protect the setting from Covid-19 may result in violence, so other measures that facilitate non-contact visits, such as the introduction of video conferencing for example Skype, should be considered,” the World Health Organization recommends.

The Heidering Prison in Berlin, Germany, runs the pilot project “Resocialisation through Digitisation” and allows prisoners to use tablets, e-mail addresses and Wi-Fi. During the pandemic, new video visitation rooms were set up in all prisons the week before Easter 2020, making video calls possible via Skype during the lockdown.     

However, the challenges for introducing technical infrastructure and programmes in prisons are tremendous. Among other things, devices must only be used for limited purposes such as training, accessing an offline encyclopedia, submitting internal documents or restricted e-mail traffic. Prisons must set up services in a way that does not allow free access to the Internet.

# The often populist debate surrounding how prisons have been affected by the pandemic also shows that it is central to break down stereotypes and provide a more accurate picture of conditions in prisons.

The debate about prisons and the needs of incarcerated people requires reframing. “It was already difficult to raise public awareness before the crisis, and now it’s even worse,” says Arturo Morell from Mexico. “Many people believe that resources should be spent on society rather than, say, fighting the pandemic in prisons. We need to push harder to ensure that resources are actually used in prisons.”

In Italy, the public debate about the spread of Covid-19 in prisons was also overshadowed by fear, panic and propaganda, as analyst Rosita Rijtano observes. “We received many comments that said prisoners don’t deserve support – they deserve to die,” Rijtano recalls. “One of the most difficult challenges in the beginning was to deal with the flood of misinformation.”

Italy’s government had temporarily placed 376 inmates that were described as mafia bosses and drug dealers under house arrest to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in prisons. The public perceived this as the government releasing high-profile mafia bosses. However, according to Rijtano, only four of these individuals were classified as mafia bosses from a legal perspective; 253 still had pending trials.

For further information, you can download the full report of the online workshop series here.

Published May 20, 2021.

About the authors

Julia Jaroschewski is a journalist with expertise in the fields of foreign politics, organized crime, the war on drugs and security policy and she is also the founder of BuzzingCities Labs, a think tank focusing on digital technology and security in informal settlements. 

Sonja Peteranderl is an editor mainly covering topics related to global politics, tech trends, security, justice and organized crime/cyber-crime and she is also the co-founder of BuzzingCities Labs. 

 

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Julia Jaroschewski

Julia Jaroschewski is a reporter and founder of Buzzing Cities Lab, a think tank focusing on digital technology and security in informal settlements such as the Favelas in Rio. She works for Die WELT, Spiegel Online, fluter and WIRED, covering mainly foreign politics, organised crime, the war on drugs and security policy. She studied in Portugal, has an MA in political sciences from Berlin and has worked for the UN in New York and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Mozambique.

Julia has attended the Axel Springer Akademie and Columbia School of Journalism. As a fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Besser-Stiftung she reported from Brazil and South Africa, and from Mozambique as a scholar working for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung. In 2016 she was part of the international journalism programme for South America, working for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. She has also spent three months in India as a Media Ambassador for the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

......................................................................................................................................................

Read more about her engagement and how cities can function as future labs for innovative forms of diplomacy. More about her ideas on Women in Crime can be found here.

Sonja Peteranderl

Sonja Peteranderl is an editor at Spiegel Online and co-founder of BuzzingCities Lab, a think tank focusing on digitalisation and security/crime in informal settlements. She covers global politics, tech trends, security, justice and organised crime/cyber crime for example the global war on drugs, predictive policing, the digital transformation of drug cartels in Mexico or the European arms trade.

She has previously worked as a senior editor at Wired Germany magazine, and as a freelance foreign correspondent for German media such as Spiegel Online, Wired, Zeit Online, Impulse magazine or Journalist magazine in several Latin American countries, the USA and China.

As a fellow of the American Council on Germany, she is currently investigating the influence and the challenges of algorithmic decision-making systems/predictive policing in the policing and security realm in Germany and the USA. She is also an alumna of the Robert Bosch foundation's “Media Ambassadors China – Germany” programme, Otto-Brenner-Stiftung/Netzwerk Recherche and the foreign journalism programme of the German National Academic Foundation/Besser Foundation and has received several grants for her international investigations.

......................................................................................................................................................

Read more about Sonja in this blog post and in this article.

Julia Jaroschewski

Julia Jaroschewski is a reporter and founder of Buzzing Cities Lab, a think tank focusing on digital technology and security in informal settlements such as the Favelas in Rio. She works for Die WELT, Spiegel Online, fluter and WIRED, covering mainly foreign politics, organised crime, the war on drugs and security policy. She studied in Portugal, has an MA in political sciences from Berlin and has worked for the UN in New York and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Mozambique.

Julia has attended the Axel Springer Akademie and Columbia School of Journalism. As a fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Besser-Stiftung she reported from Brazil and South Africa, and from Mozambique as a scholar working for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung. In 2016 she was part of the international journalism programme for South America, working for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. She has also spent three months in India as a Media Ambassador for the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

......................................................................................................................................................

Read more about her engagement and how cities can function as future labs for innovative forms of diplomacy. More about her ideas on Women in Crime can be found here.

Sonja Peteranderl

Sonja Peteranderl is an editor at Spiegel Online and co-founder of BuzzingCities Lab, a think tank focusing on digitalisation and security/crime in informal settlements. She covers global politics, tech trends, security, justice and organised crime/cyber crime for example the global war on drugs, predictive policing, the digital transformation of drug cartels in Mexico or the European arms trade.

She has previously worked as a senior editor at Wired Germany magazine, and as a freelance foreign correspondent for German media such as Spiegel Online, Wired, Zeit Online, Impulse magazine or Journalist magazine in several Latin American countries, the USA and China.

As a fellow of the American Council on Germany, she is currently investigating the influence and the challenges of algorithmic decision-making systems/predictive policing in the policing and security realm in Germany and the USA. She is also an alumna of the Robert Bosch foundation's “Media Ambassadors China – Germany” programme, Otto-Brenner-Stiftung/Netzwerk Recherche and the foreign journalism programme of the German National Academic Foundation/Besser Foundation and has received several grants for her international investigations.

......................................................................................................................................................

Read more about Sonja in this blog post and in this article.

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