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

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Updated: March 7, 2021

We, the leaders of global health, human rights and development institutions, come together to urgently draw the attention of political leaders to the heightened vulnerability of prisoners and other people deprived of liberty to the COVID-19 pandemic, and urge them to take all appropriate public health measures in respect of this vulnerable population that is part of our communities. 

Acknowledging that the risk of introducing COVID-19 into prisons or other places of detention varies from country to country, we emphasize the need to minimize the occurrence of the disease in these settings and to guarantee that adequate preventive measures are in place to ensure a gender-responsive approach and preventing large outbreaks of COVID-19. We equally emphasize the need to establish an up-to-date coordination system that brings together health and justice sectors, keeps prison staff well-informed and guarantees that all human rights in these settings are respected. 

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Reduce overcrowding 

In the light of overcrowding in many places of detention, which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, a health response to COVID-19 in closed settings alone is insufficient. Overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19. 

We urge political leaders to consider limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures. These efforts should encompass release mechanisms for people at particular risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety, such as those sentenced for minor, non-violent offences, with specific consideration given to women and children. 

A swift and firm response aimed at ensuring healthy and safe custody, and reducing overcrowding, is essential to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 entering and spreading in prisons and other places of deprivation of liberty. Increasing cleanliness and hygiene in places of deprivation of liberty is paramount in order to prevent the entry of, or to limit the spread of, the virus. 

Compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres, where people suspected of using drugs or engaging in sex work are detained, without due process, in the name of treatment or rehabilitation should be closed. There is no evidence that such centres are effective in the treatment of drug dependence or rehabilitation of people and the detention of people in such facilities raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, increasing the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Ensuring health, safety and human dignity 

All states are required to ensure not only the security, but also the health, safety and human dignity, of people deprived of their liberty and of people working in places of detention at all times. This obligation applies irrespective of any state of emergency. 

Decent living and working conditions as well as access to necessary health services free of charge form intrinsic elements of this obligation. There must be no discrimination on the basis of the legal or any other status of people deprived of their liberty. Health care in prisons, including preventive, supportive and curative care, should be of the highest quality possible, at least equivalent to that provided in the community. Priority responses to COVID-19 currently implemented in the community, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing, are often severely restricted or not possible in closed settings. 

Ensuring access to continued health services 

Prison populations have an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis B and C compared to the general population. The rate of infection of diseases in such a confined population is also higher than among the general population. Beyond the normal infectivity of the COVID-19 pandemic, people with substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis and TB may be at increased risk of complications from COVID-19. 

To ensure that the benefits of treatments started before or during imprisonment are not lost, provisions must be made, in close collaboration with public health authorities, to allow people to continue their treatments without interruption at all stages of detention and upon release. Countries should embrace a health systems approach, where prisons are not separated from the continuity-of-care pathway but integrated with community health services. 

Enhancing prevention and control measures in closed settings as well as increasing access to quality health services, including uninterrupted access to the prevention and treatment of HIV, TB, hepatitis and opioid dependence, are therefore required. Authorities must ensure uninterrupted access and flow of quality health commodities to prisons and other places of detention. Staff, health-care professionals and service providers working in closed settings should be recognized as a crucial workforce for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and receive appropriate personal protective equipment and support as necessary. 

Respect human rights 

In their responses to COVID-19 in closed settings, states must respect the human rights of people deprived of their liberty. Restrictions that may be imposed must be necessary, evidence-informed, proportionate (i.e. the least restrictive option) and non-arbitrary. The disruptive impact of such measures should be actively mitigated, such as through enhanced access to telephones or digital communications if visits are limited. Certain fundamental rights of people deprived of their liberty and corresponding safeguards, including the right to legal representation, as well as the access of external inspection bodies to places of deprivation of liberty, must continue to be fully respected.

Adhere to United Nations rules and guidance 

We urge political leaders to ensure that COVID-19 preparedness and responses in closed settings are identified and implemented in line with fundamental human rights, are guided by World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and recommendations and never amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In prisons, any intervention should comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules).

People deprived of their liberty exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or who have tested positive should be monitored and treated in line with the most recent WHO guidelines and recommendations. Prisons and other places of detention must be part of national COVID-19 plans with dedicated participation of affected populations. All cases of COVID-19 in closed settings should be notified to responsible public health authorities, who will then report to national and international authorities. 

In line with our mandates, we remain available to provide support in the rapid deployment of the recommendations outlined above. 

Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director, UNODC 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO 

Winnie Byanyima, Director-General, Executive Director, UNAIDS 

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 

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1 COMMENT

  1. The USA is one of worlds wealthiest nations with a very high percentage of well educated people, and yet it has the highest numbers of people per 100,00 of incarcerated and highest percentage of general public who in one way or another been under control of its criminal justice system, over 15% of populace, so poverty or lack of education cannot be pointed as being primary causes of crimes.
    The numbers of violent crimes committed against citizens does not constitute highest number of incarcerated, victims of gun armed peeps is around a .o5% chance event.
    Today in US it is estimated that over 30% of those pleading guilty to a crime are innocent, they do so knowing full well if facing a judge they will be found guilty and face severe penalties, so they plead and recieve lighter sentencing.
    In US populace know they are passing not just 1 penalty for a crime but also a secondary one of rape, physical abuse, chaos and mayhem, and lack of social interactions with those outside their walls, life passes them by and even a 5 year sentence will find them in a far different world than when they were first jailed.
    The juvenile justice system is the most unjust of all , breeding far more career criminals than rehabilitated youths.
    The police within US have become an occupation military force and their members are judged by themselves with cooperation of lower court local and State justice officers.
    Out of sight out of mind, is general attitude as to what conditions prisoners live under, and.; along with attitude of once guilty always guilty and deserve whatever penalties of life they recieved.
    Where were the voices except within their own mental prisons of self esteemed fellow peers when nations such as US and their European NATO
    nations invade and imprison whole nations peoples?
    Where nationalism and recognition
    of cultural identities become crimes one can be incarcerated or killed for merely voicing?
    Those who live within their own communities and are immune from life outside of them have built prison walls and only when they who have hid behind them suddenly find those walls being tore down do they cry about the injustice of it all.
    It is all politics and priveledges until those priveledges are challenged as to their worth to society and then they point to criminal behaviors of the challengers, but not directly naming their paymasters.

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