Irish Penal Reform Trust

PRI briefing: ‘Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison’

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:

  1. Equivalence of healthcare: Prisoners should be able to access urgent, specialised healthcare for suspected/confirmed cases of COVID-19. Prison administrations should develop close links with community healthcare service providers.  
  2. Early release programmes: should be introduced for older or ill prisoners, due to their particular risk to the virus.
  3. Contact with the outside world: Limitations should be proportionate including being time-limited and non-discriminatory. Clear and transparent communication should be available to prisoners and visitors. Visits should be replaced by other means such as increased phone, email or video calls.
  4. Safeguarding measures for the use of quarantine: Quarantines should be avoided unless no alternative protection measure is viable. Quarantine should only be imposed after an independent medical assessment. Safeguarding measures should be introduced to ensure that quarantine is proportionate and authorised by law and that it is does not amount to de facto solitary confinement. Measures should be in place to ensure social contact is still available.
  5. Fair trials and access to legal counsel: Criminal justice bodies should take appropriate measures to protect people from contracting COVID-19. Measures such as remote hearings, or phone calls with legal counsel should be put in place.
  6. Guarantee access to independent monitoring bodies: Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons should still be accessible to monitoring bodies. This can prevent human rights violations occurring.
  7. Measures for prison staff: All staff should have paid sick leave to avoid situations where staff feel they need to come into work despite being unwell. Training on healthcare and hygiene should be provided to staff, and prison management should share emergency preparedness plans with staff.
  8. States must put in place plans for emergency releases: To adapt to the pandemic, prisons should take measures to reduce the number of people in prison. This could include reducing the number of people being held on remand and lifting cash bail systems, and avoiding sentencing people to prison terms, especially for minor or non-violent crimes. Prison overcrowding presents a huge risk in pandemic situations. Early and temporary releases should be option for achieving this, especially for older prisoners, and those with mental or physical health issues.
  9. Criminalization as a last resort: Many states are introducing prison sentences for Covid-19 related offences. The briefing sets out that the presumption of innocence is paramount and the State should put in place measures to support people most in need, where prison should be only a measure of last resort, with judges considering reasons why an individual may have violated any ordered protective measure.      


Penal Reform International (2020) Coronavirus: Healthcare and Human Rights of People in Prison,

See Rule 24 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules),       

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public,

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



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