Monthly Archives: April 2020

Disease and the Release of Prisoners: An Early Modern Perspective

by Dr. Sonia Tycko (The Rothermere American Institute and St Peter’s College, Oxford) Prison and detention center authorities around the world have begun to release some inmates in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic, at the urging of prisoners’ rights activists. These releases seem to vary from the unconditional release of convicts who were already near the ends of their sentences, to the temporary release on bail or license of prisoners on remand or mid-sentence. With advocacy efforts and media attention focused on the decisions about release, little has been reported about what awaits prisoners beyond the prison walls. Historically, captors have often let captives go from hazardous disease environments. Past jailors’ methods and prisoners’ reactions can remind us that the mere fact of release—while clearly a crucial public health measure today—is not, in itself, enough. Prisoners should not be expected to be indiscriminately grateful for release. How prisoners are freed matters, and disease plays a major role in their experience of freedom.1 I briefly mentioned the effects of disease in my recent article, “The Legality of Prisoner of War Labour in England, 1648–1655” (Past & Present #246), which explains that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, prisoners of war were […]