The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes, the World Health Organization, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have taken note of the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and other closed settings. In this regard, they have issued a statement urging political leaders to undertake the necessary public health measures to counter and mitigate this threat.
THE United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes, the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has passed a joint statement on Covid-19 in prisons and other closed settings. The statement seeks to urgently draw the attention of political leaders towards the heightened vulnerability towards the Covid-19 infection, of prisoners and others who are deprived of liberties. The Statement urges political leaders to undertake the necessary public health measures to counter and mitigate this threat.
While urging States to minimise the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, the statement emphasises the need for adequate preventive measures to ensure a gender-responsive approach and to prevent large outbreaks of COVID-19. Additionally, the Statement also emphasises the need to establish an up-to-date coordination system that brings together health and justice sectors, keeps prison staff well-informed and guarantees that all human rights in these settings are respected.
The Statement urges political leaders to reduce overcrowding in places of detention which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, a health response to COVID-19 in closed settings alone is insufficient. Overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19. On this light, the statement urges the shift towards non-custodial measures by releasing people with particular risk toward COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety, such as those sentenced for minor, non-violent offences, with specific consideration given to women and children.
All States have also been advised to ensure health, safety and human dignity of all people deprived of liberties and of those who are working in places of detention.
The statement observes that Prison populations have an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis B and C compared to the general population. The rate of infection of diseases in such a confined population is also higher than among 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. Hence, States have been advised to ensure access to continued health services. The statement emphasises the need for Staff, health-care professionals and service providers working in closed settings to be recognized as a crucial workforce for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and to receive appropriate personal protective equipment and support, as necessary.
The statement also declares that states, in their response to Covid-19 Pandemic, must ensure that the necessary set standards of human rights deprived of their liberty are followed. It states “We urge political leaders to ensure that COVID-19 preparedness and responses in closed settings are identified and implemented in line with fundamental human rights, are guided by World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and recommendations and never amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In prisons, any intervention should comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules).”
Governments across the world have indeed taken measures to release prisoners as a response to the Covid-19 crisis. Through a Presidential decree, the government of Afghanistan confirmed the release of about 10,000 prisoners byways of parole and early release. These prisoners comprised of primarily women, children and older people who may have enhanced risks towards being infected by the virus. Bangladesh also began releasing prisoners who were convicted of minor offences as a measure to control overcrowding in prisons. Myanmar also released about 25,000 prisoners to control overcrowding in prisons amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the re-arrest of all those undertrial prisoners who were released upon the orders of the lower courts. However, the judgement also recorded that prisoners who were sick or have any disability may be released if they were sentenced to jail for three years or less. Also, those who had completed their prison sentence but failed to pay the fines were mandated to be released by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. However, the Court observed that those who were involved with corruption and drugs may not be released.
Turkey announced the release of over 90,000 prison inmates. However, political prisoners and dissenters to government policies remained in jail. Iran also temporarily released over 85,000 prisoners.
Even though the United Kingdom announced the release of 4000 prisoners, only 57 of them have been released so far. Several detained immigrants in the UK have not only been denied release but also have not been given adequate masks and other necessary disease prevention measures. Overcrowding in the jails of the USA continues to be a challenge as the prisons now have more people aged above 55 than younger inmates.
As a response, to the Covid-19 Pandemic, several countries have tried to simply lock up prisoners and have denied them all interactions. This has even resulted in rebellions in Italy and Columbia.
In India, the Supreme Court ordered the release of detainees who were lodged over 2 years in the Foreigners’ Detention Camps in Assam in order to avoid overcrowding in prisons. The Supreme Court of India also ordered several states and union territories to consider the release of prisoners on paroles in order to reduce overcrowding in jails. The states were directed to constitute high powered committees to determine which class of prisoners could be released on parole or interim bail. Over 400 prisoners were released from the Tihar jail to control overcrowding. After Covid-19 entered the prisons, the government of Maharashtra also declared the temporary release of over 17,000 prisoners. However, political prisoners of the Bhima Koregoan case, held under the arbitrary Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019, have been denied interim bail despite them being aged and most vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. Activists and journalists continue to be arrested arbitrarily for being dissidents to the government policies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has once again exposed the problematic side of the criminal justice system in term of prison management. The Prison Statistic India report released in 2018 says that even though the prison capacity of India is 3,96,223, prison population of India is over 4,45,084. This overcrowding stands in the very heart of the lack of dignity and democracy within the management of Indian prisons. Overcrowding in prisons is an international reality. the Covid-19 pandemic has further revealed the misplaced priorities of States as they deploy their mechanism to further oppress free speech and liberty instead of bringing access to justice amidst the pandemic.
The UN bodies joint statement addresses these very dichotomies that have re-emerged in these difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic.