18th March 2020
Penal Reform International publishes briefing on ‘Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison’
The COVID-19 pandemic may have serious implications for prisoners’ health and human rights. The PRI briefing summarises how prisons around the world have been dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak to date, and issues recommendations on how those responses could be improved. At the time of the report’s publication (16 March 2020), countries such as China, Italy and Iran, had reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons, but many more countries had put emergency measures into place.
Under the UN Nelson Mandela rules, the provision of healthcare for prisoners is a State responsibility and equivalence of healthcare in prisons is required, meaning that healthcare provided in prisons should be to the same standard as that in the community.
Prisoners typically have worse health than the general population. To protect against COVID-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends frequent hand-washing and social distancing. These measures are often unavailable to prisoners, with overcrowding being common, and access to soap and hand sanitizer being restricted.
Prisons in many countries are attempting to limit prisoners’ contact with the outside world, resulting in restrictions or bans on visits to prisons. The Irish Prison Service had, at the time of this report, restricted visits to one per prisoner per week, with a maximum of two adults per visit. Measures limiting prisoners' contact with the outside world have led to issues surrounding the right to fair trial or legal counsel in some circumstances - particularly for remand prisoners, who in some countries have been restricted from attending court.
Quarantines have also been imposed in prisons in several countries. In Canada and England this has led to whole wings of prisons being quarantined due to one person falling ill or having been in contact with an infected person.
Penal Reform International sets out a number of values which should guide criminal justice agencies responses to COVID-19 including: ‘do no harm’ (e.g. adapt by reducing the number of people in custody), equality, transparency and humanity.
A number of important recommendations to address the issue of COVID-19 in prisons are included in the report:
Penal Reform International (2020) Coronavirus: Healthcare and Human Rights of People in Prison, https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/FINAL-Briefing-Coronavirus.pdf
See Rule 24 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/1957/06/ENG.pdf
World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public