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Prisoners’ experiences and coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic response – an ethnographic study conducted mid-pandemic

Mathilde Carøe Munkholm (Department of Law, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 15 December 2022




This paper aims to report findings about how prisoners experience and cope with COVID-19 restrictions, which can contribute to an understanding of how pandemic responses, and specifically the COVID-19 response, affect prisoners.


Data was collected through ethnographic fieldwork involving days of observations (N = 24) and the conduction of semi-structured interviews with prisoners (N = 30) in closed prisons and detentions in Denmark between May and December 2021. The transcribed interviews and field notes were processed and coded by using the software programme NVivo.


The data analysis reveals that the pains of imprisonment have been exacerbated to people incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. To relieve pains of imprisonment, prisoners turn to censoriousness as an informal coping strategy, where they complain about inconsistency and injustice in the prison’s COVID-19 prevention strategy to reveal the prison system itself as a rule-breaking institution. The prisoners criticise the prison management for using COVID-19 as an excuse, treating prisoners unjustly or not upholding the COVID-19 rules and human rights. Furthermore, principles of justice and equality are also alleged by some prisoners who contemplate the difficulty in treating all prisoners the same.

Research limitations/implications

More research will be needed to create a full picture of how prisoners cope with pandemic responses. Further research could include interviews with people working inside prisons.


In a Scandinavian context, to the best of the author’s knowledge, this study is the first of its kind to apply an ethnographic approach in exploring prison life during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Munkholm, M.C. (2022), "Prisoners’ experiences and coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic response – an ethnographic study conducted mid-pandemic", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.



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