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

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PURPOSE: 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.

DESIGN/METHODOLOGY/APPROACH: 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.

FINDINGS: 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.

ORIGINALITY/VALUE: 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.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Prisoner Health
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)452-463
Publication statusPublished - 5. Sept 2023


  • COVID-19
  • Censoriousness
  • Infectious disease
  • Prison ethnography
  • Prisons
  • Qualitative prison research
  • The pains of imprisonment
  • Pain
  • Pandemics
  • Humans
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Prisoners


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