Coronavirus: Healthcare and Human Rights of People in Prison

Penal Reform International briefing note issued on 16 March 2020 on the situation of the outbreak of a novel form of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and prevention measures in prisons and wider impacts of responses to governments on people in criminal justice systems.

As the COVID-19 pandemic affects more people in an ever-increasing list of countries, Penal Reform International (PRI) has published a briefing note, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison. With the fast-evolving situation, there is a legitimate concern of a further spread of the virus to places of detention. The difficulties in containing a large outbreak in detention facilities are clear. People in prison and the personnel who work with them are in close proximity and in many cases in overcrowded, cramped conditions with little fresh air. People in detention also have common demographic characteristics with generally poorer health than the rest of the population, often with underlying health conditions. Hygiene standards are often below that found in the community and sometimes security or infrastructural factors reduce opportunities to wash hands or access to hand sanitizer – the key prevention measures recommended by the World Health Organization.

While legitimate measures in times of such an emergency are needed to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons, authorities need to ensure human rights are respected. In such anxious times, it is even more pertinent that people are not cut off from the outside world, they do not end up in solitary confinement, and most of all they have access to information and adequate healthcare provision – equal of that available in the community.

Our briefing outlines the key measures that criminal justice systems, including prisons and courts, have taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – and the impact of these in light of the UN Nelson Mandela Rules and other key standards.

Action needs to be taken now and immediately, given the risk people in prison are exposed to, including prison staff. Such action should be guided by international standards and the values of: Do no harm, equality, transparency, humanity.