Coping with prisons? COVID-19 and the functioning of the Polish prison system

Maria Niełaczna (Department of Applied Social Sciences and Resocialization, Institute of Social Prevention and Resocialization, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 8 February 2021

Issue publication date: 18 October 2021




This paper aims to explain the phenomenon of low incidence of COVID-19 in Polish prisons. This paper addresses three questions: was the Polish prison system ready to respond to the threats posed by COVID-19; what action has it taken in this regard; and with what effect?


An analysis of the current condition of the Polish prison system was undertaken focusing on items that were the focus of prisoners’ complaints, the interventions of the Ombudsman and the bulletins of the Central Board of the Prison Service. This analysis has been juxtaposed with the opinions of experts in epidemiology and medicine and changes introduced in the law relating to prisoners.


During the COVID-19 epidemic – despite serious chronic problems in the Polish penitentiary system – the statistics indicated that 24 individuals were infected and no deaths occurred. When compared to the statistics of non-prison cases, this result is extremely low.

Research limitations/implications

Given the newness of the problem, the conflicts of different interests, the “double” isolation of prisons (penal and epidemiological) and the reluctance of the prison administration to provide information about what is happening behind prison walls, researchers must rely on statistics and subjective contacts with prisoners, for example, by investigating their complaints.

Practical implications

As a result of the research, the author believes that the transparency of institutions such as prisons should be ensured, primarily expressed in the provision of information to both prisoners and the public relating to methods adopted to prevent epidemics in the context of prison and prisoners.


The value of this paper is to show how prisons have managed in a new, exceptional situation to balance the right to health and personal safety of prisoners and warders, with the right to contact with the outside world and humane living conditions in a closed and doubly isolated space. The findings presented will add value to the knowledge and effectiveness of the prison administration’s reaction and response to an emergency such as an epidemic.



Niełaczna, M. (2021), "Coping with prisons? COVID-19 and the functioning of the Polish prison system", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 267-281.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

“Not equipped” –prison context of COVID-19

For many years, the Polish penitentiary system has had to deal with systemic problems such as poor living conditions and inadequate health care. As in other countries, it is an underfunded area that has inherited not only a depleted material base but also an aversion to change (Klimczak and Niełaczna, 2020, p. 15; Szymanowski, 1996, p. 31). Crowded multi-person cells, shared toilets, limited medical resources, poor ventilation and limited access to hot water are still prevalent despite improvements over the past 30 years (since the regime change from totalitarian to democratic in 1989) (Migdał, 2008, p. 625; Moczydłowski, 2003, p. 93). These deficiencies are subject to complaints by prisoners in national and international courts and interventions by human rights organizations.

The systemic problems and errors in the proceedings of medical and prison services have been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in cases against Poland (Dzieciak complaint No. 77766/01, judgment of 9.12.2008, §99–101; Musiał complaint No. 28300/06, judgment of 20.1.2009, §95–96, Kaprykowski complaint No. 23052/05, judgment of 3.2.2009, §76–77). These cases focus on:

  • continuing imprisonment despite a deterioration in health;

  • inadequate quality of medical care or specialist treatment that has put health and life at risk; and

  • lack of cooperation and coordination of services.

In the landmark case of Kudła v Poland, application No. 30210/96, §94 (26.10.2000) for the first time, the ECHR considered that Article 3 of the ECHR requires the state to ensure that a detainee is provided with conditions that are compatible with respect for their human dignity and that the type and manner of execution of that measure does not subject them to suffering or hardship that exceeds the unavoidable level associated with the arrest and, taking into account the practical requirements of imprisonment, their health and well-being are adequately protected, by providing the necessary medical care (Garlicki, 2010).

The Ombudsman and investigative journalism also revealed the poor quality and efficiency of the prison health service (IAR, 2008; Janczura and Dreśliński, 2011). Critical cases (those leading to the death or loss of health of a prisoner) show that the prison health and medical care provided to prisoners in the whole range of preventive, curative and rehabilitative measures was inadequate from the point of view of Article 3 of the ECHR.

From the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) inspection of sanitary and medical aspects in Polish prisons from 2004 to 2017 (four visits), the following recommendations were regularly repeated:

  • population reduction and the provision of a standard 4 m2 personal living space per prisoner, as this translates into a hygienic and sanitary standard of living; priority is given to the provision of this standard in prison hospital rooms (CPT, 2006, 2011, 2014, 2018);

  • increasing the level of employment in the health service (especially psychiatrists and nursing staff), ensuring the presence of a person trained in first aid (using cardiopulmonary resuscitation and a defibrillator), preferably with nursing qualifications, not excluding nights and holidays (CPT, 2006, 2011, 2014, 2018);

  • renovation of sanitary facilities in cells, which should include regular disinfections and full (i.e. up to the ceiling) separation of sanitary corners located in the cells, including those in the hospital wing (CPT, 2011, 2014, 2018);

  • ensuring that all newly arrived prisoners are received by a doctor or a fully qualified nurse within 24 h of their arrival; improving the medical examination procedures for newly arrived detainees by a full physical examination (CPT, 2014, 2018);

  • providing all prisoners with the necessary personal hygiene measures and detergents and increasing the use of showers (CPT, 2011, 2014);

  • providing appropriate therapeutic and psychological support (CPT, 2006, 2011); and

  • the introduction of harm reduction programs, in particular for convicted drug addicts (e.g. information on how to sterilize injectable drug material, needle exchange programs and condom delivery) (CPT, 2006, 2018).

The relatively high incidence of infectious and chronic diseases among prisoners, such as jaundice or tuberculosis (Korzeniewska-Koseła, 2013, pp. 375–378, Korzeniewska-Koseła, 2015, pp. 389–393), remains in Polish prisons although the incidence of tuberculosis among prisoners is difficult to compare with the general population due to the lack of availability of data on sick prisoners (Brzezińska et al., 2012).

In 2013, an audit by the Supreme Audit Office revealed that the applicable deadlines for preliminary, periodic and check-up examinations of some detainees were not respected. These examinations, especially chest X-rays, were significant in the situation of increased incidence of tuberculosis (SAO, 2013, p. 6) [1].

Daily life in isolation is not free from regular, necessary routines, resulting both from the law and from the need to serve the prison and its users. These include the entry and exit of staff members, the continuous introduction of newly imprisoned or arrested persons and their transport in multi-passenger vehicles for judicial, medical or security purposes (Sánchez et al., 2020; Wallace et al., 2020, p. 587). In addition, access to health services is more difficult than in the local environment (van’t Hoff et al., 2009; Kinner et al., 2020).

Prisons, i.e. places where people are gathered in close proximity, can potentially become a source of infection and vector of transmission both within and outside the institution. Evidence is provided by experience with tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and hepatitis. According to the experts, there are infections in prisons, including severe hepatitis C and scabies. One of the causes is overcrowding, which means it is almost impossible to isolate those who are the source of the infection. This facilitates the spread of various diseases (Rogala et al., 2013, p. 446). A large number of infections have already been reported across prisons in Europe with some prison deaths attributed to COVID-19 (Cingolani et al., 2020; Dolovich, 2020; Wallace et al., 2020; Widra and Hayre, 2020).

Research confirms that the state of a prisoner’s health and well-being is not checked on release. In addition, infectious diseases have contributed to one in ten deaths after release, suggesting that infectious diseases are an important preventable mortality factor in the population of released prisoners (Binswanger et al., 2016, p. 574; Kinner et al., 2013, pp. 38–49). Inter alia, health affects readaptation and re-offending (Wallace and Wang, 2020).

Therefore, prisoners have become the subject of special concern to human law organizations, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), CPT, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) and national organizations such as the Ombudsman. It can be argued that prisoners are among the most vulnerable to viral infection because they are kept in a high-risk environment: detention centers are not adapted to large-scale epidemics, and basic protective measures such as social distancing and hygiene rules cannot be observed as easily as outside (Council of Europe, 2020).

A pandemic is a state of emergency, requiring more intensive, costly and specialized measures to combat and prevent it. The above diagnosis concerning the state of Polish prisons raises three questions:


Has it been, and is it still, ready to respond to the threats posed by COVID-19?


What action has been taken?


With what effect?

Methods of discovery

After declaration of the epidemiological status in Poland, the government introduced a number of restrictions on personal, economic, sports, cultural and scientific freedom. Poles – like other nationalities – found themselves in “lockdown.” It has become practically impossible to conduct research – to collect research material and thus determine what is actually happening in prisons – in a direct way – as the institutions “shut down.” Even before the pandemic, prisons were secret places, largely hidden from public view and academic scrutiny (Crewe, 2009, p. 1; Scott and Flynn, 2014, p. 18).

The work reported here is based mainly on secondary sources and the collection and interpretation of data are as reported by those authors. The variety of information sources and perspectives of entities interested in the safety and health of the prison community confirm the robustness of the methodological approach and research results.

The following sources and databases were used: the new COVID Act, which provides greater scope for early release from custody (COVID Act), state websites, official statistics collected by government agencies, findings of other public life actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), opinions and statements from practitioners (epidemiologists and lawyers) and prison magazines reporting current difficulties and ways of solving them.

Data from these sources were collected and analyzed in the period from the beginning of March to the end of August 2020 using both qualitative and quantitative research (statistics) methods. After analyzing the COVID Act, I identified those laws that applied to prison. This allowed interpretation of the intention of the legislator – in line with the intention of the international legislator shared by many countries (decarceration of prisons) – and to construct questions about the dynamics of the sentenced population and how to reduce it.

Statements published by the Central Board of Prison Service were regularly analyzed, together with official statements by the Commissioner for Human Rights regarding prisoners and officers and media reports (a total of 39).

The research material also includes information obtained from the Ombudsman regarding the complaints of prisoners linked with COVID-19 (March–April), a webinar of experts from various professions on April 30, 2020 and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) report on additional restrictions introduced in Polish prisons in March and April this year.

Analysis of the Prison Service Forum, which appeared in the six months between March and August 2020, provided data from “internal” sources, the prison officers themselves.

A process of theoretical deduction was applied, which proceeds according to standard deductive logic. Here, the scientist strives to discover something new by deducing one or more corollaries from basic premises or propositions (Given, 2008, p. 220). Deductive discovery is revealed as a deliberate and systematic process.

Compatibility of prison system with guidelines and standards

Continuous standardization of prisons is a characteristic feature of the Council of Europe Member States. Its effectiveness was influenced by ECHR case law, CPT visits, political and social changes in the late 1980s in Central and Eastern Europe and the new version of the European Prison Rules (Coyle, 2002; Grzywa and Dunkel, 2011, pp. 354–355; Van Zyl-Smit and Dunkel, 2002, pp. 185–192).

The compilation of WHO, CPT and SPT guidelines [3] sets the following requirements for prison authorities: early detection of COVID-19 in prisons, including the provision of screening; reasonable restriction of prisoners’ contact with the outside world and justification of the need for restrictions, as well as providing information about the virus; providing prisoners with appropriate cleaning products and persons with symptoms of the disease or medical staff with protective masks; ensuring that prison staff are available and providing the former with the professional support, health care and training necessary to enable them to continue their tasks in prison; verification of criteria for the distancing of prisoners and routine situations of grouping prisoners together; compensation of prisoners for restrictions by increasing opportunities to contact their loved ones via telephone or Skype; identification of prisoners at risk due to age or comorbidities; reduction of the number of prisoners; immediately quarantining in single accommodation under strict monitoring of those who have a positive COVID-19 test; and obligation to determinate “suspect case, probable case, confirmed case, case reporting.”

The elementary strategies for preventing and minimizing the effects of an epidemic include decarceration (dispersal and release; Brennan Center for Justice, 2020), physical distancing, movement restrictions, face coverings, cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces in common areas, staff training on infection control (Amon, 2020; Assembleia da República, 2020; European Prison Observatory, 2020).

In addition, the state should urgently adopt and implement a humanitarian and comprehensive emergency plan, supported by adequate human and financial resources, which will meet the needs of both those leaving and those remaining in prison, including prison staff. This should be done in consultation and cooperation with the national preventive mechanism and human rights NGOs [4].

The above guidelines draw a broad spectrum of intensive and regular preventive, medical, control and even repressive measures. However, these measures must never lead to inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners (CPT, 2020).

In some countries, harm reduction programmes have been introduced when infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis have been detected in prisons. In this way, a pool of experience of effective ways to minimize the risk of epidemics is built. Australian research has shown that the attitude of officials and prison administrations toward an infected prisoner is important. Unfortunately, Australian researchers also confirmed something that is often a permanent feature of prison, the paradigm of power and distribution of privileges. This can sometimes act to feed the wells of dislike and frustration of staff and perpetuate the impasse that exists between staff and prisoners (Miller et al., 2013). The internationally approved definition of prison indicates that prison is a total institution with total power and control intended for the confinement of persons who have been remanded (held) in custody by a judicial authority or who have been deprived of their liberty following conviction for a crime (Coyle, 2018; Goffman, 1962; Liebling and Maruna, 2011, p. 2), and, at the same time, an institution in which offenders can be re-educated and redeemed (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2001, p. 147; O’Brien and Yar, 2008, p. 129). The definition itself thus contains a certain contradiction and antagonism between the prison staff community and the prisoner community.

The proven need for harm reduction programs has also shown the existence of a positive prison obligation in this field. In other words, the introduction of prevention and harm reduction procedures and programs is crucial from a human rights point of view – failure to act on the part of the authorities means putting the right to protect life and freedom from inhuman treatment at risk (Mann et al., 1994; Ohringer et al., 2020; Sander, 2016, p. 8).

In Poland, the harm reduction initiative in prisons was undertaken by the HFHR. In August 2012, a meeting of representatives of the Social Committee for AIDS took place with members of the HFHR, the aim of which was to discuss actions to reduce harm in Polish penitentiaries and the possibility of their extension (New challenges in damage reduction with particular emphasis on the Polish penitentiary system, 2012). Five years later (March 2017), within the structures of the Polish penitentiary system, an international seminar was held within the HA-REACT programme (HIV and Co-infection Prevention and Harm Reduction), the aim of which was to outline a general picture of substitution treatment and harm reduction activities in Polish prisons in the context of international and national regulations and to prepare a substantive contribution to the training program for medical and social workers of European prison services, including the Prison Service in Poland [5]. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to locate any results of the knowledge or recommendations generated. Further, external voices of a scientific nature have not been translated into practice.

During the COVID-19 epidemic, the algorithm for prison procedures developed by the Central Board has not been made public. The Chief Sanitary Inspector (CSI) recommended keeping a safe physical distance between people (1.5 meters); ensuring regular hand washing or disinfection (with an at least 60% alcohol-based agent) in public places; communicating information on how to effectively wash hands; avoid touching the face area, especially mouth, nose and eyes, and cough and breathing hygiene by all possible means; disinfect high touch surfaces (tables, handles, light switches and telephones); and frequently used areas (toilets and common areas) (CSI, 2020).

Reaction of the Polish legislature

Prison does not work in a vacuum. As part of the administration, it implements the established law, i.e. the Act of 2.3.2020 on special arrangements for the prevention, counteraction and combating of COVID-19, other infectious diseases and crisis situations caused by them (COVID Act). Theoretically, the regulation broadens the possibilities of the prison response appropriate to the degree of threat, i.e. preventing an epidemic in penitentiary units and minimizing its negative effects. “Possibility” in legal language means a certain margin of administrative discretion, therefore not necessarily an obligation to act. Taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the COVID Act would require additional activities, additional or delegated and prepared people and specific knowledge of the prisoners (to select those who could serve their sentence outside prison for example).

The new possibilities relate to the fundamental problem of dispersal of the prison population in the context of an epidemic and thus providing conditions which are conducive to the prevention of infection or responding appropriately in cases of suspicion or confirmation.

The COVID Act extends the circle of prisoners who can:

  • be covered by the Electronic Supervision System (ESS). The court will apply this system to a person sentenced to imprisonment not exceeding one year and six months (hitherto – one year);

  • be released for a break in punishment. The court – at the request of the governor of the prison, accepted by the director general – may release prisoners of up to three years imprisonment for a break. The only reason for this is the state of the epidemic and the need to disperse the prison population; the break ends with the end of the epidemic; and

  • be placed in more relaxed isolation conditions for health reasons. The court, on a proposal from the governor, shall order the enforcement of the sentence by placing the prisoner in an appropriate medical facility. Unfortunately, this is only an apparent measure of dispersal of penitentiary units, as all the treatment facilities in question are outpatient clinics with a sick bay or hospitals of detention centers or prisons and the capacity of prison hospitals is included in the total capacity of prisons. However, there is no alternative because the public health service operates on the principle of subsidiarity only when necessary and when the prison health service is not able to offer a specific medical service.

The COVID Act therefore focuses on the speed of reaction and availability of the authorities, which is why penitentiary cases initiated by the prison governor are “urgent” cases for the court. Court sittings may be held using technical equipment, with direct transmission of video and audio.

According to the statement of the prison authority, the number of persons eligible for ESS, but not yet covered by this type of intervention, could theoretically increase to 12,000. The statistics will show whether the prison system has made use of this option.

Reaction of the polish prison system

The Executive Penal Code (EPC) entitles the governor of a penitentiary or pre-trial detention center to stop or restrict all manifestations of prisoners’ family, social, labor, educational, sporting, religious activities and to order the closure of cells and to prohibit the possession of certain objects in the cell (Article 247 §1 of the EPC). The decision must be justified on specific sanitary or health grounds, must specify the duration of the restrictions (up to seven days) and must be reported to the penitentiary judge. Extension of the duration of restrictions or prohibitions shall require the consent of the latter. This provision has been taken up by the governors, gradually limiting the prisoners’ visits with their families and their release to freedom, whether in outside employment or on a pass.

The governor also has the power to place prisoners in nonstandard (less than 3 m2) conditions for up to 90 days if an epidemiological or epidemic state or threatening state is declared or occurs in the prison. Such decisions may be necessary to achieve “deserted” cells dedicated to quarantine or “sickbay.” Sentencing a person to three months of isolation in a claustrophobic space with the accompanying tensions due to a state of epidemic, lack of contact with loved ones, is risky in practice.

Psychologists confirm that people who live under constant stress have put their entire immune system on standby and created a state of emergency in their minds (Massoglia, 2008, p. 58; Matsumoto et al., 2005; Porter, 2019, pp. 2, 12; Skowroński and Talik, 2018). The longer this condition lasts, the longer the immune system is mobilized and held in tension, the weaker the body becomes. The mind “infected” with strong anxiety is more susceptible to obsessions (mental disorder). In a person who is socially inadequate or has problems with emotional control (characteristic features of the prison community), the feeling of threat can lead to an aggressive reaction (Kozłowska, 2020, pp. 28–29).

What has happened in practice? The first countermeasures reported by the prison system were introduced at the beginning of March, 2020. These included measuring the temperature of all those coming into the prison (warders, convicts and visitors); limiting visits (gradually, individual establishments introduced a ban on visits or limited them until 20 March, when the ban became common due to the introduction of the epidemiological state [6]); obliging prison staff to familiarize themselves with the recommendations of the CSI and the WHO, as well as with infection prevention, 14-day-long quarantine of newly admitted prisoners who returned from the “regions” [7]; suspension or reduction of employment of prisoners working inside and outside the prison [8]; constant and ongoing cooperation with the local and provincial sanitary services (notifying them about the suspicion of infection or contamination, as this authority decides if quarantine or health isolation is necessary) paying special attention to prisoners with comorbidities (a particular risk group) [9], the provision of disinfectants in prisons, as well as the recommendation that prisoners should be able to buy them in the canteen, if possible increasing the number of baths and access to hot water, as well as the opportunity to contact family and friends by phone or Skype; and shortening the time of dispensing of RTV equipment to be used by prisoners in their cells [10].

Later, the prison system ensured that all prisons and detention centers were stocked with virucidal disinfectants, hygiene and medical supplies, including protective masks, overalls and gloves. The Remand Center in Warsaw-Białołęka, for example, had 2,000 liters of surface disinfectants, 500 liters of hand disinfectants, 23 noncontact thermometers, 10,000 masks, 35,000 gloves and additional overalls, glasses, shoe protectors, goggles, visors and protective aprons. According to the recommendations of the sanitary services, the entrances to the rooms should be disinfected several times a day, including handles and doors (“Response of the Central Board of the Prison Service to publication”, 20 March 2020).

According to the communiqués of the Central Board, the prison service has been cooperating with sanitary inspectorates and monitoring epidemiological threats from the beginning of the pandemic and constantly since. The decision to carry out possible tests or conditions for placing in quarantine an infected prisoner or officer is made each time by the district sanitary and epidemiological station.

At the end of March 2020, 74,581 prisoners were actually in prison. The population was therefore 91.33%. After analyzing the messages posted on the website of each of the 172 prisons, a collective diagnosis of the new restrictions in prison was made by the HFHR (HFHR, 2020; Table 1).

In addition, the HFHR findings show that 124 units (72%) have adopted measures such as extending the possibility to keep in touch with loved ones via telephone or internet communication. In several prisons, mass was broadcast via radio, and three units increased access to hot water.

Knowledge concerning the functioning of Polish prisons during the epidemic has been supplemented with a description of “first-hand” practice published in the journal Forum of the Prison Service between April and May 2020. This indicated that a wide range of specific protection and assistance solutions were available.

The central board has set up an anti-epidemic team, which deals with ensuring the health and safety of warders and prisoners, setting directions of action, algorithms of conduct, information transfer and supervision. The prison system applied to the CSI for the possibility of testing officers and prisoners on unit premises. In addition, in two prisons, so-called isolation units were created – wings completely excluded from normal functioning and dedicated to newcomers (Łupińska, 2020, pp. 20–21).

Admissions of prisoners and detainees, including those wanted by a national or European arrest warrant, are carried out with increased security and at a distance. There are slightly fewer admissions than before the epidemic. The cells in which new prisoners and detainees are placed in the first days allow contact through intercom; additionally, they are monitored. Warders have been equipped with disinfectants, and some units have ultraviolet lamps for disinfection. A doctor, a registry officer and a security guard have contact with the newly admitted – remotely. The latter wears a special protective suit (Krawczyńska, 2020a, pp. 4–6).

As a rule, since April, frontline warders (who have direct contact with prisoners) are required to wear masks. Only “urgent” treatment is provided in the Gdańsk region; however, in a few establishments, prisoners may use e-visits, whereas officers may use tele-advice (Pilarska-Jakubczak, 2020, pp. 12–13).

In March, about 20,000 protective masks were made daily in prison factories (e.g. in Wołów, Racibórz and Grudziądz). Manufacture where there were existing sewing rooms but also where one or several sewing machines could be set up. In April, the Wołów Penitentiary Facility referred prisoners to a local outside company to produce disinfectants (the plan assumes production of 80,00 liters of liquid per month) (Bezpieczeństwo przede wszystkim, 2020, pp. 8–9).

Rehabilitation programs have been built around the production of protective measures, e.g. “We’re sewing life” (masks) and “Knights of Life” (visors). According to prison staff, these programs are in line with the purpose of the prison sentence. The prisoners, feeling a sense of responsibility, joined the actions for those in need and felt they were helping in the fight against the epidemic (Kamińska, 2020, pp. 10–11; Krawczyńska, 2020b, pp. 8–11).

In April, a special ward for prisoners with COVID-19 from all over Poland was opened in the prison in Potulice. This is worthy of mention, as it demonstrates that the Polish prison system was preparing for a critical situation particularly in respect to seriously ill prisoners who could not be treated outside prison by the general health service. In addition, the Prison Health Service in Potulice specializes in infectious diseases (jaundice), and the prison has adequate facilities and staff.

Voices from outside prison: interventions by the Ombudsman, watchdogs and complaints by convicts

To supplement the lack of transparency and often vague communication about the situation in Polish prisons during the pandemic, it was necessary to examine the findings and opinions of experts and human rights defenders. The views and opinions of several former prison service employees were also sought.

By April 28 2020, 60% of the complaints received by the Ombudsman’s office mainly concerned questions that prisoners had initially addressed to the prison administration. The complaints concerned 49 prisons, most of them in Warsaw, Łódź and Gdańsk districts. There were no complaints from the Opole and Koszalin districts. The highest number of incoming submissions (66%) was recorded in March 2020, a period of great concern and uncertainty about the situation. The authors of the complaints were mostly prisoners, plus their closest families (28%) and lawyers (5%). Complaints were balanced because they took into account the care of the warders, their own health and well-being, the welfare of their loved ones and the positive actions of the prison administration and staff (increased standards of hygiene measures, additional baths and improved frequency of contacts with family).

The allegations focused on the lack of personal hygiene measures (one bar of soap per month, no disinfectants); lack of hot water in cells; failure to comply with sanitary recommendations, e.g. during walks in groups of 50 people, and shopping in the canteen; not disinfecting places where large clusters of prisoners congregate; (handles, corridors and handrails); and officers not using masks and gloves, especially during personal inspection. The prisoners also complained about frequent changes of cell and transportation without maintaining hygiene standards, limited contact with the prison visitor and governor (their submissions and requests were considered after a delay), lack of tests, psychological assistance and contact with the doctor and the unavailability of specialists such as surgeons or psychiatrists. The complaints of detainees focused on questions relating to compensation for the restrictions on contact with family, as they are excluded by law from contact via Skype and telephone.

Krzysztof Pyrć (head of the Virology Laboratory at the Małopolska Center of Biotechnology at Jagiellonian University) stated that blood tests do not detect the virus, but only antibodies. Therefore, only genetic tests based on swabs are recommended (Lipiec, 2020). They should be performed on all persons who have contact with the outside world and enter the prison. Therefore, prisoners, if they work in a common space (for example, outside the prison or in a hall where civilian workers also work), must be treated in the same way as people from outside. They should be able to have constant test opportunities. There is a fast and cheaper testing path, so-called “pooling” (which involves taking samples from several dozen people from the same place and testing several dozen samples at once). Pooling is tried and tested in epidemiological studies (Kopacz et al., 2018, pp. 39–51; Phikulsod et al., 2009; Ważna, 2020). This is useful in the study of public spaces, i.e. clusters and groupings of people.


A declaration from the Central Prison Board on March 31, 2020 confirmed that three officers and one member of the Prison Service had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. One prisoner had been infected with coronavirus and 78 prisoners from abroad were under preventive medical surveillance. According to data obtained from the Ombudsman’s Office from April 30 2020, it appears that three prisoners fell ill and 59 were in quarantine.

The response from the Prison Statistics and Information Bureau from September 10 2020 indicates that in the period between March 2 and August 31 2020, there were 24 prisoners infected with COVID-19; 1,005 were in quarantine; 16 stayed in a specially created isolation facility in Potulice Prison, whereas no one had died in prison as a consequence of COVID-19. 1,113 prisoners were tested for COVID-19 by blood test.

The prison service did not use the new act to minimalize and “spread out” the prison population. During the period under consideration, 5,364 inmates were referred to the ESS, but it is unclear how many of those that left prison were released due to COVID-19. The number of prisoners who took advantage of a break in their sentences at the request of the prison governor, and as a direct result of the epidemic, is also unknown. The prison population, in fact, remained unchanged. The reception of detainees and sentenced persons in custody and their transport between prisons was conducted in the usual way and with similar frequency as pre-COVID-19.

Between March 2 and August 31 2020, 33.195 (33 thousand 195) new prisoners were admitted (whereas the average monthly admissions in 2019 was 6,922). According to the Bureau’s statistics, 15 of those interned were suspected of COVID-19.

In this most uncertain and tense period, there was no indication that prisoners were coping with their frustration by revealing aggression or violence. Neither prison statistics nor the media have noted signs of collective unrest or revolt.


Health and health care is one of the most detailed aspects of prison life described from various perspectives (medical, human rights and criminological). It could be argued that a separate branch of EpiCrim, or epidemiological criminology, has been created. It is a combination of epidemiological and criminal justice theory, methods and practice, and its epistemological basis is constituted by both criminology and public health (Lanier et al., 2015, pp. 152–163). As such, EpiCrim includes the study of everything that affects the health of society, be it crime, epidemics or imprisonment during such a period.

These aspects are frequently the subject of an infringement of Article 3 of the ECHR and the subject of the WHO’s interest in times of epidemiological crises, which underlines its concern for those most at risk. The health and welfare of prisoners is an area where violation of freedom and inhumane treatment often takes place. Their manifestation is the failure to provide prisoners with safe and humane living conditions, exposing them to loss of health and a lack of adequate medical care. Prisoners are at risk not only of infection but also of the consequences of inadequate and overly sluggish medical care.

After the announcement of the epidemic state in Poland on March 20, restrictions on social and public life on both sides of the prison wall were introduced. They affected everyone and led to fear or anxiety about personal health and that of those closest to them, together with concerns relating to precautions and responsibility for the spread of the epidemic.

The Polish prison system, as in other countries, was not prepared to implement the WHO, SPT, CPT or the national CSI’s guidelines. This is mainly due to chronic systemic problems and underfunding. An analysis of the communiques posted by the prison service shows that it was ready and able to take a number of protective and preventive measures, as well as those intended to compensate for the restrictions introduced.

An analysis of the opinions of experts and others interested in prisons indicates that their fears for the health of those imprisoned is correct and their vigilance (inquiries, public appearances and interventions) strengthens the control mechanism of the prison authorities and thus the protection of prisoners and warders. This fear is not entirely justified in light of the practical measures (even those of a restrictive nature) that local prisons have taken, and, if we believe the prison statistics, the number of infections and illnesses in Polish prisons.

Both international and national legislators, in introducing specific regulations, have indicated that one of the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the virus is the dispersal of the prison population, which involves the release of those most at risk, sentenced to short-term sentences and the restriction of temporary arrests. In Poland, during the analyzed period of the epidemic (March 2–August 31, 2020), neither a significant decrease in arrests nor an increase in releases (break in sentence, parole and serving the sentence using the electronic supervision system) was observed.


Has the Polish prison system been, and is it still, ready to respond to the threats posed by COVID-19? Just as society, yes. This is because it penetrates every day into the routines of prison officers who care about maintaining the status quo, which is connected with preventing the escalation of infections. In other words, the traditional approach of the prison service (to maintaining order), combined with the application of epidemic-related precautions, has helped to reduce infection. The measures taken were rational and, as usual, financially viable. Those directly affected responded surprisingly well. Prisoners, for example, were accepting of restrictions and endured the uncertain times with an understanding of the seriousness of the epidemic. Time management helped prisoners to remain calm and to engage in tasks such as sewing masks. Thanks to special rehabilitation programs, prisoners also created visors, which they donated to hospitals and social welfare homes. Others made cards for children and recorded fairy tales for them.

How has the prison system resisted the escalation of the epidemic? If statistics are to be used as a guideline, prisoners proved to be the safest group and the prison a hermetic environment.

Scale of restriction in percentage

Form of restriction Scale (how many prisoners in %)
Granting inmates visitation 100
Employment of inmates outside the prison unit 9.15
Celebrating services and providing religious services 80.70
Collective activities 16.37
Contacts between inmates, closure of cells and stopping walks in semi-open and open prisons 2.33
Granting passes 2.33
Access to the unit for persons providing services to the inmates and not employed in the unit – other than procedural issues 1.75
Possibilities of receiving parcels 1.75
Conducting penitentiary activities conducted or co-conducted by persons from outside the unit; carrying out penitentiary activities conducted outside the unit 1.16
Accepting payments to detainees only in non-cash form 1.16
Carrying out procedural activities on the premises of the penitentiary unit, including visits with defenders, attorneys, notaries, court superintendents, plenipotentiaries before the ECHR 1.16



Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention Interim guidance WHO, March 15, 2020; statement of principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, CPT/Inf (2020)13; advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States Parties and National Preventive Mechanisms relating to the coronavirus pandemic (adopted on March 25, 2020).


“Regions” are the countries or areas that have a persistently high level of COVID-19 infections.


The restrictions do not apply to convicts producing masks and protective suits and working in the food sector.


Prisoners were not included in the risk group when they were older. On December 31, 2019, 3,319 (4.52%) prisoners over 60 years of age were placed in penitentiary units.


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Further reading

The response of the Central Board of Prison Service to publication (2020), 30 March, available at: (accessed 31 May 2020).

Corresponding author

Maria Niełaczna can be contacted at:

About the author

Maria Niełaczna is based at the Department of Applied Social Sciences and Resocialization, Institute of Social Prevention and Resocialization, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland. She is Doctor of law and a criminologist. In her research, she focuses on criminal careers, the crime of murder, the social climate of the prison, the execution of extremely long-term sentences and on the rights of prisoners. She publishes empirical works based on field research and analysis of court and prison documents. She runs the University Clinic of Law “Article 42 of the Executive Penal Code.” Its students participate in the execution of imprisonment and help prisoners in social readaptation.

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