In this blog, as we publish a new briefing on coronavirus and criminal justice systems, Penal Reform International’s Executive Director, Florian Irminger, reflects on measures taken in response to the pandemic and what needs to be done – now and in the longer term – to prevent harm and human rights violations.
William Garrison is one of the many people who passed away from COVID-19 in 2020 while in detention. He died aged 60 on 13 April 2020 in a prison in Wayne County, Michigan, in the United States of America. He had been watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfolding on the prison’s television, having spent 44 years in detention for involvement in a crime when he was 16 years old. After initially refusing parole, preferring to wait for unconditional release in September, Garrison took up the offer given the outbreaks of coronavirus. However, his liberation came too late – five days after he accepted the parole offer but before the mandatory 28-day waiting period for his release, he died. His name will be remembered, not least because of his namesake, the abolitionist and suffragist, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of The Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The fate of people deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic attracted increased attention from mid-March 2020. As we wrote in PRI’s initial briefing, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison, ‘people detained are vulnerable for several reasons, but especially due to the proximity of living (or working) so closely to others – in many cases in overcrowded, cramped conditions with little fresh air’.
Media attention was high at a time when some countries announced massive releases from prisons and images of prison riots were being shown on television. In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for swift action to protect persons in detention, including through releases, alongside similar calls from the World Health Organization. Since then, at least 102,537 people deprived of their liberty were infected in 88 countries, and at least 1,569 prisoners died in 36 countries due to COVID-19 – that we know of.
We publish this new briefing, Coronavirus: Preventing harm and human rights violations in criminal justice systems, to ensure that people who too often remain invisible to society at the hands of the state, and at risk of infection or in need of medical care, are not forgotten. We reaffirm the duty of care that states have for people in detention, and we document the responsibility of states to provide healthcare and take proactive measures to prevent harm of people deprived of liberty.
An infectious disease can be a disaster for a closed facility. Risks of infections are obviously much higher where people in poorer health than the general population are held, where women, men and children are kept in poor or even filthy unsanitary conditions, where individuals are cramped together in overcrowded facilities and where authorities lack resources and training to use protective equipment. Even in countries with high standards for places of detention, people in prisons, including staff, have been infected and died of COVID-19.
Measures intended to prevent, or address outbreaks of coronavirus have violated rights and, at the very least, made time in prison much harsher and burdensome. Lack of contingency plans, poor coordination among criminal justice actors, overincarceration and a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation and health are causes of infection and deaths in places of detention. Systemic and long-term reform is needed to prevent a situation like this from happening again. People under penal supervision in the community are also facing new and unique situations of vulnerability. We document some of the challenges faced by probation agencies and concerns for those under non-custodial conditions.
We are also aware that criminal justice actors, law enforcement agents and prison staff, prosecutors and judges, have gone through stressful and exhausting months, and themselves face risks of being exposed to coronavirus. These are challenging times, and many prison and probation staff are working in dangerous settings with threats to their health and safety. They are frontline workers, although not always recognised as such.
As we publish this briefing, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and it would be ill-advised to, at this stage, focus solely on long-term answers. Every preventable disease or death, like the passing of William Garrison, must provide the impetus for criminal justice systems to continue – and enhance – their efforts to respond to COVID-19.
We must continue to undertake efforts to implement guidance by the World Health Organization and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We call on actors to implement the urgent recommendations detailed in this briefing, and we will continue to engage with criminal justice authorities in the countries where we are present. The international community must equip itself to hold states accountable to international human rights standards and support efforts to reform criminal justice systems nationally in the aftermath of coronavirus.
Criminal justice systems all over the globe do too much harm to people in contact with them. Preventable infections, illnesses, and deaths due to COVID-19 sadly demonstrate where the lack of an international, systematic, and continued response can lead.