Irish Penal Reform Trust

UNODC, WHO, UNAIDS and OHCHR issue joint statement on COVID-19 in prisons and other closed settings

13th May 2020

UN agencies – UNODC, WHO, UNAIDs and OHCHR – have issued a joint statement on COVID-19 in closed settings to draw attention to the increased vulnerability of those deprived of their liberty to the pandemic. The human rights-led statement focuses on five strategies which are crucial to protecting those in places of detention from COVID-19.

Reduce overcrowding: Preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19 in places of detention is impossible without reducing overcrowding. Countries must ensure that the use of deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, is a measure of last resort. Those with vulnerabilities to COVID-19 such as the elderly or those with health conditions should be released, as should those sentenced for minor non-violent crimes.

Ensuring health, safety and human dignity: All countries must ensure that those deprived of liberty and those who work in places of detention are guaranteed health, safety and human dignity, even during states of emergency. It is crucial to provide decent living and working conditions, as well as access to healthcare which is at least equivalent to that provided in the community.

Ensuring access to continued health services: People with substance use disorders and diseases such as HIV, TB and hepatitis are overrepresented in prisons. These people may be at increased risk of complications from COVID-19. Prisoners must be allowed to continue treatments without interruption, both in prison and after release. Countries should, therefore, integrate prisons with community health services rather than separate them. Staff in prisons should be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment and support to ensure continuity of health services during this time and to enhance the prevention and control of disease.

Respect human rights: States must respect human rights in their responses to COVID-19 in closed settings. Restrictions must be necessary, evidence-based, proportionate and non-arbitrary, and disruptive impacts of such restrictions should be actively mitigated such as by providing enhanced telephone access if visits are restricted. Fundamental rights such as the right to legal representation must be respected and external inspection bodies must still be able to access closed settings.

Adhere to United Nations rules and guidance: COVID-19 preparedness and responses in places of deprivation of liberty must be implemented in line with fundamental human rights, be guided by WHO recommendations and never amount to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Interventions in prisons must comply with the Nelson Mandela Rules. People deprived of their liberty with COVID-19 symptoms or positive test results should be monitored and treated in line with WHO guidelines. Place of detention should be part of national COVID-19 plans and cases of COVID-19 in closed settings should be reported to public health authorities, national and international bodies.


The joint statement can be read in full here.


The statement is guided by general human rights principles, as well as specific guidance issued by UN agencies related to COVID-19, including:

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



Contact us

  • Tel: 01 874 1400
  • More
viewed here