Prison management during Covid-19 in China can be understood as a heightened version of its existing risk-management model. Whilst imposing considerable stress on prison officers, these strategies seem to be effective in keeping prisons safe. Restorative justice (RJ) scholars may need to re-examine the possibilities of bridging the call for restoring relationships with the current demands for security.

  • A risk management model stands out during Covid-19, but is short of adequate attention to the needs of prison officers.
  • This model poses challenges to restorative justice regarding its relational aim and restorative approach at a special time.
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Amidst the global pandemic of Covid-19, it is frequently reported that penal systems in different regions and locations are under considerable strain. The risk of infection in prisons has been a concern shared by various associations, human rights groups, legal scholars and political authorities who have expressed calls for or taken certain actions. The question of legitimacy troubles prison regimes more adversely under Covid-19 conditions.

In this short essay, the authors focus on managing prisons in China at a special time. Based on materials gathered online, the essay provides a sketch of the strains posed to the Chinese prison system during Covid-19 and the overriding responses. The illustrations as such bring the logic of local governance to the fore, which is premised on a special form of risk management. There is a tentative discussion that this risk-logic governance does not deviate from a future-oriented perspective of restorative justice (RJ). However, the challenges of meeting the needs of different groups and restoring social relationships remain difficult to tackle.

A sketch of responses to prison infection

‘Being Alert’

At the peak of the pandemic in February in China, several hundred cases of infections broke out in five prisons scattered across Hubei, Shandong and Zhejiang provinces. Authorities reacted quickly, coordinating medical resources in an administrative manner to address the prisons’ needs. Other measures included treating infected persons in prison hospitals, sending the most severe ones to designated local hospitals, placing less serious patients in temporarily-built hospitals, isolating suspicious cases for inspection and quarantining those in close contact.

Sanctions were pursued concerning those prison officers who were considered liable, including removing the related officials and ordinary prison wardens from office and bringing criminal charges of dereliction against the provincial leaders who were in charge of prison management. Via the technique of blaming the ‘prison’ and ‘prison officers’ for the failures, the authorities assured the public that actions were taken to ensure security.

At the time of the outbreak, the authorities became alert to the weak link in prison management. Following an investigation administered by a special investigation team sent from the central government, the authorities announced that the leadership of Rencheng prison (one of the affected prisons in Shandong province) was trapped in bureaucratism (guanliao zhuyi) and formalism (xingshi zhuyi), coupled with a lack of awareness of peculiarity, complexity and sensitivity of their prevention and control responsibilities. In the announcement, it was concluded that there was a big gap between the current prison management capability and what is required to modernise prison management in today’s China.

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‘Emergency Becomes the Regular’

As a response to Covid-19, tightening prison management became standard procedure. Apart from closed management of the prison, such as excluding visitors and the no-touch supply of prison goods, stringent internal measures were forced on prison officers, making them directly accountable for the prevention and control of disease spread inside their prisons. Officers on shift at the time of the outbreak were required to remain on duty indefinitely until further notice. In order to change shifts, officers in the next shift were mandated to quarantine in a designated location for 14 days and to pass Covid-19 testing before entering the prison. These command and control measures were aimed at urging prison officers to be more accountable, loyal and effective in the cause of preventing and controlling Covid-19; however, they caused grudges, dissatisfaction and an ethos of powerlessness.

As can be seen on social media platforms, prison officers and their family members have been active in voicing their discontent with prison management. Pointing to overwork for an extended period of time, some voices maintained that the long shifts (in some cases reaching 77 days) posed harm to their health, negatively impacted their work performance and affected their social ties with families and friends.

An explanation of a risk management model

It is clearly seen that prison management during the current Covid-19 pandemic is undergirded by a risk-averse mentality. Error is allowed only at the zero level. The firm action towards risk control relates to a model of governance under authoritarian regimes, which prioritise order maintenance and institutional legitimacy. Risk is thus not only understood as a calculation of the probability of a (medical) health outbreak, but is also interpreted as any perceived threat to order. Risk technologies through which governing is achieved embrace the tightened management of prisons and prison officers. This is unsurprising, since prison is an important institution for exerting social control, and prison officers are charged with the daily running of prisons, as well as safeguarding societal security. The deployment in the prison system happens within a larger picture of ordering resources and populations at a national level in countering Covid-19; the prison is a unit of this project.

Such a risk management model unites the whole society in collective action, which has an impact on the ordinary organisation of social life and adversely affects certain groups. Tightened management due to the outbreak of disease has left a dent in the psychological status of prison officers, for example. On one hand, they bore the ‘blame’, embodied in negative reactions from the authorities. On the other, despite ‘moral stories’ released in various outlets showcasing their sacrifices, prison officers were not made to feel they could ever be properly understood by the public. However, this model prioritises risk-logics, submitting all social groups, including prison officers, to collectivist values and a disciplinary culture. Despite unmet individual needs, individuals or social groups must align themselves with the avowed national goal. It appears that the tough internal measures on prison officers have been effective, at least judging from no further infection cases being reported.

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It remains to be seen what the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic will be for the prison system. At the present time, the current risk management style appears to have halted the infection within Chinese prisons. Certainly, the authorities may be considering new mechanisms of disease prevention and control to deal with the evolving state of disease spread. However, they will hardly depart from the logic of order maintenance and institutional control.

Concerning the picture of prison management at the present time, it poses several questions for applying a RJ framework to prisons. RJ is concerned with restoring social relationships among different social members. At a time when risk-logic is predominant, stringent measures in controlling risks can inhibit a person’s bonds with his community. Balancing the needs of different groups remains another intriguing issue to tackle, one evident in suppressing the needs of prison officers for the security of the general public. However, a more fundamental question would be what it means for repairing social relationships during a period of social distancing.

Furthermore, advocates of RJ have converged their attention on challenging the prison regime under a retributive paradigm. During normal times, prisons function to regulate social relations by isolating wrongdoers from law-biding citizens. For RJ, if prison is not to be abolished, its use should be contained and minimised. Yet RJ advocates remain silent on proposing an effective solution to control the spread of disease infection in prisons at this special time.

Last but not least, there exists a viewpoint of RJ proposing that it contains a future-minded logic (Shearing, 2001), i.e. by bringing the harm inflictors and harm bearers together to solve their disputes, both sides will be able to live together again. This sounds valid; however, the question will be how RJ can successfully bridge its relational approach and the broader security context, especially during a pandemic.

Xiaoyu Yuan is a Lecturer, School of Criminal Justice at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. contact:

Xiaoye Zhang is a Lecturer at the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminal Law, East China University of Political Science and Law



Shearing, C. (2001). Punishment and the changing face of the governance. Punishment & Society 3(2):203–220.  Https://