As the world has struggled to combat the Coronavirus pandemic, many prison populations have been an afterthought in the discussions about the protection of vulnerable groups. Many people in correctional facilities tend to have pre-existing conditions that make them much more vulnerable to infection and more likely to die as a result of it. Since overcrowding is common, the very nature of incarceration prevents social distancing and unfortunately, prisons who do manage to enforce social distancing, effectively condemn their inmates to long periods of solitary confinement with little oversight. Prison workers have also been exposed to extended risks of infection as the impact of close working environments coupled with limited PPE impacted them too.
On 6 May 2021, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) issued minimum requirements for detention conditions in European prisons. The report mentioned several concerns about the negative impacts of austerity measures on detention centres in certain European states which are likely to worsen as a result of the long term COVID-19 effects. The CPT revealed that during its prison visits, many establishments failed to meet basic needs which led to inmates being exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment. The report highlights that there have been significant cuts in necessary provisions such as food, heating, access to work, and access to time outside cells. The committee concluded by stating that every person deprived of liberty should have sufficient access to adequate food, clean drinking water, decent sleeping conditions, as well as the ability to keep clean. This however has not been the case in prisons globally. The rights of prisoners have been continuously neglected by their governing bodies and as a result prisons have not been provided with the funding and resources to effectively control the spread of COVID-19.
Treatment of prisoners worldwide:
Despite being part of some of the most vulnerable groups affected, prisoners have not been given early access to vaccination. The death rate for prisoners with COVID-19 is more than three times higher than that of the general population.The prisons watchdog has revealed that the extra restrictions applied, such as the cancellation of educational classes, having to remain in their cell for 23 hours a day, and a restriction in family visits, have led to a decline of general and mental health as well as an increase in self-harm and drug taking. A whole-prison vaccination approach would have ensured immunity, however prisoners have had their vaccinations at the same time as the general public in line with the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) prioritisation groups.
Many prisons have noted recent spikes in COVID-19 cases. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York reported that as of 16 April, one in five of the 529 women residing there have tested positive for COVID-19. It is a women’s prison for pregnant inmates and the facility also offers a nursery programme for new-borns. Women at the prison are worried for themselves as well as their babies and have expressed concern about being isolated with little support if they show covid symptoms.
In the US, 1,400 new infections and 7 deaths have been recorded at prisons every day over the course of the last year. Texas in particular has demonstrated an extremely poor response to preventing the spread of COVID-19 in its prisons. Inmates are forced to spend extended amounts of time in hot, crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation. There is a lack of both masks and soap and prison visitors are not permitted to bring sanitiser to prison since it is considered contraband.The Marshall Project has documented 112,864 positive COVID-19 cases and 205 recorded deaths among prison staff in the US since the beginning of the pandemic. Furthermore, family members of inmates have expressed concern about the inmate’s mental health due to increased isolation.
Inmates residing at Guantanamo Bay have just been offered the vaccine and so far, 32 out of the 40 inmates have received their first shot in order to comply with legal requirements regarding the treatment of prisoners. So far no cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the US base in Cuba.
Social distancing has been impossible in Argentina’s overcrowded prisons and a lack of hand sanitiser and soap has increased the spread of COVID-19. Inmates at the federal prison in Villa Devoto, the most populated in Buenos Aires, have responded to the poor living conditions by starting a prison uprising. On 23 April 2020 prisoners rioted and hoisted a banner which read “We refuse to die in prison”. During the riot, 40 prisoners and 15 guards were injured. On 30 April, Argentinians banged pots and pans outside their windows as a form of protest and an online petition calling for the release of the prisoners received over 600,000 signatures.
The prison conditions in Peru are similar to those in Argentina. The detention facilities are overcrowded and run at more than double capacity. Castro prison has an official capacity of less than 2000 but houses 5,500 inmates, causing COVID-19 to spread rapidly. After the death of two prisoners, from COVID-19, inmates in Lima started a prison riot, calling for pardons, better medical care, and increased sanitary measures. Prior to the riot, 600 prisoners, and 100 prison workers had already been infected with COVID-19. 9 people were killed during the riots and 60 guards, 5 police officers and 2 inmates were injured. Peru eventually approved a decree allowing the president to grant pardons to some prisoners in order to reduce the prison population and therefore slow the spread of disease.
Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population, housing 773,151 prisoners, leading detention centres to run 300% over capacity. These overcrowded conditions greatly increased the spread of COVID-19. In May 2020, according to the Brazilian National Council of Justice, COVID-19 cases in Brazil’s prisons increased by 800% which meant up to 2,200 prisoners were infected despite only 1% being tested for COVID-19 at the time. Overall, the number of prison deaths in Brazil have increased by 50% from 2019 to 2020.
France has had a much smaller COVID-19 outbreak in its prisons, however this has come at the price of increased restrictions for its prisoners. Family visits have been restricted and children are no longer permitted to visit some of the facilities. Any visits that are approved have to take place behind a glass partition. Furthermore, some prisons have limited outdoor time leading prisoners to remain in their cell for 23 hours a day, often sharing this cell with two other inmates. Educational and training programmes have also been suspended. At the beginning of the pandemic in march 2020, French authorities encouraged judges to reduce the amount of prison sentences given, instead suggesting alternative sentences. Despite this the prison population has been increasing.
In Croatia, special attention was given to the prevention of contagion. Detention facilities adopted precautionary measures such as increased hygiene through the disinfection of the prison premises. Visits by friends and family were restricted and videoconferencing replaced in-person meetings when possible. Additional supply of PPE was issued and frequent open air walks within the detention centres were encouraged. Finally, prisons ensured that inmates would have a cell to themselves for isolation if they demonstrated any COVID-19 symptoms.
As of 5 May 2020 the Finnish district courts suspended the hearing of 5,587 criminal cases and 1,388 civil cases to reduce in person contact as a result of COVID-19. The courts of appeal have suspended the hearing of 286 cases, the administrative courts have suspended the hearing of 238 cases and the special courts the hearing of 41 cases. To further encourage social distancing, the National Court Administration supported the use of video conferencing during trials when possible.
In Polish courts, special attention was given to providing court employees with sufficient PPE such as masks, gloves and sanitiser. Increased hygiene was practiced as well as social distancing, particularly from people who returned from abroad. Those who entered the courts were subjected to temperature checks to test for COVID-19 symptoms. The prison court was given the possibility to grant an interruption of detention sentences for prisoners sentenced up to three years in prison. The interruption would only last as long as the state of emergency (in this case the length of the pandemic) and could not be granted to repeat offenders or those with more severe sentences.
Republic of Moldova
Criminal cases related to an early release from custody as well as complaints about prison conditions were moved from in-person meetings to online meetings using a videoconferencing system. From 18 March to the end of April 2020, Moldovan courts used videoconferencing systems for over 600 court hearings as well as hearings that extended prison sentences. The Superior Council of Magistracy as well as the Agency for Court Administration also used videoconferencing to conduct their meetings as well as their training sessions.
Ukraininan courts responded to the pandemic by applying additional measures such as increased cleaning of the premises, the use of masks and disinfectant, as well as increased ventilation. Those that attended court were subjected to temperature checks to tests for COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone demonstrating high fever or respiratory problems were not allowed in court proceedings. Protection was worn by both court attendees as well as court staff such as judges and court clerks. Furthermore, bactericidal lamps were used in the courtrooms. In the courts, all non-procedural measures were cancelled and admission of anyone not directly related to the case was limited. Those attending court were only allowed to enter the premises ten minutes before the start of the trial and judges were advised to reduce the number of daily court hearings.
Middle East & North Africa
Even before the pandemic, Iran’s prisons had high numbers of political prisoners, often with preexisting conditions. Since the spreading of COVID-19, the conditions have worsened drastically. Overcrowding in the prisons makes social distancing impossible and many facilities lack basic cleaning supplies, hot water, and access to medication. Furthermore, prisons suffer from poor ventilation and a lack of disinfection procedures. Amnesty International revealed leaked official documents detailing senior prison officials requesting additional resources from the government to control the COVID-19 spread. Among the requests were masks, gloves, disinfectant, air ventilation systems, blood pressure and glucose monitors, stethoscopes, and defibrillators. The document warned that “security hazards” and “irreparable harm” will result from inaction, yet requests were repeatedly ignored by the Iranian government. In response, thousands of inmates, spread throughout 8 different prisons, protested the poor living conditions leading to Iranian security forces to kill 36 protesters and wound hundreds more.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) have called on the authorities in Bahrain to release all human rights activists and protesters in prison whose arrests are in violation of their right to freedom of expression. The GCHR highlights the threat of COVID-19 to those being detained, particularly as infection numbers in prisons have been rising. While Bahraini authorities claim that all those who tested positive for COVID-19 have been isolated, the threat of death due to poor conditions and lack of medical treatment remains. Many inmates in Bahrain’s prisons have suffered the effects of torture, making them particularly vulnerable to illness.
There has also been a spread of COVID-19 in Roumieh Prison, the largest detention facility in Lebanon. Several guards and inmates have reported symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, loss of smell, fatigue, and high temperatures. The prison was built with a capacity of 1,500 but actually houses over 5,500 inmates, making social distancing impossible and the spread of disease very likely. Despite the frequent report of COVID-19 symptoms, the prison pharmacy has run out of painkillers and fever remedies.
Inmates at a prison in Yemen’s southern Aden governorate are at serious risk from the rapid spread of COVID-19. There is a lack of basic healthcare as well as items that would prevent the spread of disease such as masks, gloves, and sanitiser. Human Rights Watch reported that in April 2020, 44 inmates were transferred to a room built to hold only 4 people, preventing inmates from social distancing. Furthermore, inmates with preexisting health conditions such as kidney disease and asthma were deprived of basic medication. Inmates kept in unofficial detention centres used by Houthi rebels are particularly vulnerable to the virus. The main detention centres such as the Political Prison, the Habra Prison, and the Central Prison in Sana’a lack the minimum legal standards for detention which require hygiene, ventilation, health care, water, and electricity. Inmates at these centres already suffer from various forms of torture (physical and mental) which makes them much more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Libya was among the countries least prepared to prevent, detect, or respond to a health crisis according to the 2019 Global Health Security (GHS) Index. This lack of prevention methods impacts those held in detention centres, many being held in long-term arbitrary detention without charge. Libya responded to the pandemic by releasing 1,347 detainees with minor charges in March 2020. However, those that remain suffer beatings, overcrowded cells, and poor sanitation.
To prevent the excessive spreading of COVID-19 in prisons, Turkey passed an early parole law in April 2020 which allowed inmates to leave earlier, therefore reducing overcrowding in the correctional facilities. However, this law did not apply to political prisoners including journalists, politicians, lawyers, and human rights defenders. Despite the early parole law, Turkey’s prisons are severely overcrowded. Normal capacity for Turkish prisons is 114,000, and 218,950 at ‘extended capacity’ which involved adding bunk beds and limiting the living space. Yet, Turkish prisons currently hold up to 290,000 inmates in total. Besides Diyarbakır Juvenile Prison, all detention facilities exceed their official capacities which meant that many inmates were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor, some even having to share beds. On 31 May 2021, a top Turkish prison authority reported that since march 2020, 50 inmates have died of COVID-19.
In China, prisoners were some of the groups immediately impacted by the virus. In February 2020 at least 230 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at Wuhan’s Women’s prison which triggered the removal of the director. A further 41 inmates tested positive in Shayang Hanjin prison. Cases were much likely higher than indicated since there was a delay in accessing the province prison network reporting system of infectious diseases. During the February 2020 press conference, Xiong Xuanguo, the Ministry of Justice’s deputy head stated that there were several prison officers who came into contact with people from affected areas in Hubei and did not fully report their contact history, putting inmates at risk.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons has highlighted the shortcomings of the prison system in general. Severe overcrowding and a lack of access to medical equipment demonstrates that providing prisons with the funding to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks has barely been an afterthought. Furthermore, vaccination was introduced much too late for those that cannot legally care for their own wellbeing. More support must be provided since for those already vulnerable due to poor living conditions, underlying health issues or the effects of torture, a prison sentence could really mean a death sentence.