In this external expert blog for PRI, Giorgi Burjanadze, Deputy Ombudsperson in Georgia and member of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) mandated to conduct the monitoring of detention facilities, shares how they adapted its methodology to continue its critical work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Georgian criminal justice policy is not lenient. The country has a punitive justice system, which is widely supported, and even demanded, by its general population. Many applaud when they hear in the news that some defendants have been sentenced to five years of imprisonment. But now, after being confined in their homes for up to 2 months, people are gaining a new perspective. They realise that “imprisonment” even at home with family members, equipped with internet, smartphones and TV is difficult.
I hope that people will start to change their minds regarding criminal justice policy and harsh penal sanctions after being quarantined as a result of Covid-19. Now we all know that restrictions on our liberty are not easy. When calculating the proportionality of sanctions, we should think more about what each day a person in prison has to spend behind bars really means.
We at the Public Defender’s Office of Georgia have the mandate to act as the country’s National Preventive Mechanism and therefore are able to visit places of detention to prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We also investigate individual complaints of mistreatment from prisoners. From 16 March 2020, in response to the global pandemic of COVID-19, our office shifted to a new socially distanced working model. We knew that this was an important period and that there was a risk that our activity could threaten the health and rights of the people we seek to protect. We needed to ensure that we do no harm in our work, however, so we started to develop internal guidelines for safety measures and procured protective equipment such as masks, etc.
In Georgia, more than 4000 prisoners (approximately 40% of the total prison population) are divided into three huge semi-open prisons. Prisons are controlled mainly by so-called “watchers”. “Watchers” or” “informal rulers” are influential prisoners who actively prevent prisoners from speaking out about their problems or raising complaints with us. Thus, preventive visits and detailed monitoring of prisons are essential to discover and prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. By visiting places of detention we are able to find problems and speak parens patriae on behalf of “silent” prisoners.
From the very outset, we decided not to discontinue individual visits in prisons, as recommended by Penal Reform International in their briefing note ‘Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison’, which emphasises the need to continue to allow visits from independent monitoring bodies during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a two-month period, we managed to meet with more than 100 prisoners, using glass barriers and other measures to minimise the risk as much as possible.
Regular NPM visits were postponed given the new and emerging challenges to address with COVID-19 – instead, we planned and implemented new approaches to monitoring in detention facilities with quarantines (e.g distance monitoring).
We developed special monitoring tools for COVID-specific situations in closed institutions (preventive health mechanisms, overcrowding etc), particularly prisons, ensuring our monitoring doesn’t harm people detained.
The challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are unique and no one was ready with the knowledge or foresight to tackle this novel virus. Therefore, we want to work with state institutions to conduct a transparent and frequent dialogue as well as provide them with recommendations that will help to protect people as much as possible. Currently, we are making progress in achieving our aims and have already developed all monitoring instruments and conducted some visits. Now, we are developing reports and recommendations to provide to respective state institutions. Our aim is to ensure maximum protection for people in Georgia’s largest detention institutions and speak vocally on behalf of their rights.
When I say “we” I mean my colleagues. There are seven NPM and twelve Criminal Justice Department staff members who never hesitate to visit any closed facility or express fear for their own safety when visiting closed institutions. With the aspiration and motivation of these staff, I am sure “we” will manage to do more for prisoners’ rights in Georgia.
Resources on monitoring of detention places during the COVID-19 pandemic