As governments across nations strive to implement safe distancing measures in nearly every segment of their societies, the incarcerated population remains among the most vulnerable groups throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overcrowding continues to be a major crisis in prisons where strict safe distancing and hygiene measures are difficult to implement consistently, which poses high risks to the wellbeing and dignity of prisoners.
Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — in a joint statement with Executive Director at UNODCG Ghada Fathi Waly, UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Thursday (14 May) — urged governments to opt for “non-custodial measures” over actions such as pretrial detention.
Governments must also take into consideration releasing older prisoners and those with pre-existing health conditions — both of whom have been found to be most susceptible to the deadly coronavirus.
Compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres for individuals suspected of drug abuse or addiction, or those partaking in sex work, should also be shut down during this period, said the UN leaders.
“There is no evidence that such centres are effective in the treatment of drug dependence or rehabilitation of people and the detention of people in such facilities raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, increasing the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks,” they added.
Govts must ensure prisoners have uninterrupted access to free essential healthcare
Governments, said the UN officials, have an obligation to ensure that incarcerated persons have access to free essential health services, as well as “decent” living and working conditions “irrespective of any state of emergency”.
“There must be no discrimination on the basis of the legal or any other status of people deprived of their liberty.
“Health care in prisons, including preventive, supportive and curative care, should be of the highest quality possible, at least equivalent to that provided in the community,” their statement read.
Prison populations, the officials noted, “have an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis B and C compared to the general population”.
“Beyond the normal infectivity of the COVID-19 pandemic, people with substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis and TB may be at increased risk of complications from COVID-19,” they warned.
Health authorities must thus collaborate with prison officers and the relevant authorities “to allow people to continue their treatments without interruption at all stages of detention and upon release”.
“Countries should embrace a health systems approach, where prisons are not separated from the continuity-of-care pathway but integrated with community health services.
“Enhancing prevention and control measures in closed settings as well as increasing access to quality health services, including uninterrupted access to the prevention and treatment of HIV, TB, hepatitis and opioid dependence, are therefore required,” the statement read.
Medical workers and service providers, as well as prison staff, who work in closed settings “should be recognized as a crucial workforce for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and receive appropriate personal protective equipment and support as necessary”, the UN added.
Prisoners tested positive for COVID-19, or show symptoms of such, should also be “monitored and treated in line with the most recent WHO guidelines and recommendations”.
“All cases of COVID-19 in closed settings should be notified to responsible public health authorities, who will then report to national and international authorities,” the statement read.
Govts must suitably make provisions to uphold human rights of prisoners, including allowing “enhanced access” to alternative means of communication if visits are limited
During this time of crisis, governments must continue to uphold the human rights of incarcerated people and suitably make provisions if certain personal liberties are temporarily curtailed for safety reasons, according to WHO and the other UN health agencies.
“The disruptive impact of such measures should be actively mitigated, such as through enhanced access to telephones or digital communications if visits are limited,” they said.
“Certain fundamental rights of people deprived of their liberty and corresponding safeguards, including the right to legal representation, as well as the access of external inspection bodies to places of deprivation of liberty, must continue to be fully respected,” they added.
Persons incarcerated for “minor, non-violent offences”, particularly women and juvenile offenders, should also be considered as those who could be released during this pandemic “without compromising public safety”.
“Acknowledging that the risk of introducing COVID-19 into prisons or other places of detention varies from country to country, we emphasize the need to minimize the occurrence of the disease in these settings and to guarantee that adequate preventive measures are in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach and preventing large outbreaks of COVID-19,” the statement read.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia granted early release to over 38 thousand prisoners in April to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the archipelagic nation’s overcrowded prisons.
The country’s federal government plans to continue granting the release or parole to a total of 50,000 prisoners.
However, the measure was not welcomed by the public and even by the prisoners themselves.
Campaign & Advocacy Officer at Indonesian Act for Justice (AKSI) Yohan Misero said in the “Reducing Incarceration in the Time of Covid-19” webinar today that the Ministry of Law was even sued by several civil society groups — whose members are legal activists — for releasing tens of thousands of prisoners.
While such groups raised concerns on the safety in their neighbourhood after a number of the prisoners released had gone on to re-offend, Misero posited that on a larger scale, the objection of the release of prisoners is rooted in stigma and discrimination.
According to trends on incarceration based on data from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University, Indonesia ranked second in Southeast Asia in the list of the region’s most overcrowded prison capacity at 204.95 per cent overcapacity.