Since early 2020, reports of violent incidents in prison facilities have been linked to restrictive measures imposed due to COVID-19, fear of infection among those detained, and protests around lack of action and appropriate provisions by authorities.
Protests in prisons (often labelled ‘riots’) affected almost every corner of the globe with fatalities reported in Venezuela, Uganda, Scotland and Sri Lanka. In Argentina, there were 82 protests in prisons reported between March and December 2020, and while protests are not uncommon in the country, many of these were linked to concerns around the handling of COVID-19. Protests across 40 prisons in Italy in early March 2020 were sparked by measures to limit family visits and contact due to COVID-19. They resulted in the death of 13 detained people and injuries among scores of people including prison staff. In September 2020, a large-scale escape from Singila Prison in Uganda was prompted by fears of a COVID-19 outbreak. Over 200 people who were deemed high-risk escaped, 7 of whom have been killed in police operations to rearrest and 16 have been detained again.
Not all prison unrest over the past year has been related to COVID-19, however. In the US there were country-wide protests in response to the death of George Floyd, which led to a strict lockdown being imposed on 1 June 2020 in federal prisons, impacting over 165,000 people. Unrest in Sentema Prison in Uganda was in response to overcrowded conditions and flooding of the prison, and in the north of the country, at Pece Prison, calls for better access to courts were central to protests. In New Zealand, poor prison conditions at Waikeria Prison led to a 6-day rooftop protest, with a wing of the prison destroyed by fire, and only ended when protestors were denied food and water.
Excessive use of force by authorities in responding to incidents of unrest in detention facilities is a growing trend.
Twenty-four detainees were killed and 76 injured as police responded to a protest in a Bogotá jail in Colombia with reports suggesting that the high death toll was because authorities did not have less lethal equipment for quelling the violence. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used by police in response to COVID 19-related protests in Togo. In Sierra Leone, a protest in Freetown’s central prison in April 2020 left 31 people dead, including a prison officer, after live ammunition was used by prison staff. The detainees were protesting overcrowding and inadequate measures to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. Similarly, 20 people were killed in an Iranian prison after live ammunition was used by authorities to suppress protests about COVID-19 concerns. In November 2020, staff opened fire on people detained in a Sri Lankan prison with severe overcrowding and staff shortages, leading to 8 fatalities.
Across Latin America, violence – often related to gangs and organised crime groups – has continued to cause deadly riots and exceedingly high rates of death in custody. Rival gang members fighting across three prisons in Ecuador in February 2021 led to 79 fatalities. In Chile, new analysis of data showed that the number of violent incidents involving three or more people increased sharply from 808 in 2014 to more than 4,000 in 2017. The private management of prisons and low prisoner to staff ratios were linked to higher numbers of such incidents.
In systems where COVID-19 measures meant one or two persons were ‘locked down’ most of the day in individual cells, there are suggestions that levels of violence between people detained had not decreased but had taken different forms.
Torture and ill-treatment in detention remain systemic and widespread as reported on by international human rights bodies and national monitoring bodies for instance in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Nicaragua over the past year. Amnesty International reported several cases of torture and other ill-treatment committed in the name of protecting public health and stopping the spread of COVID-19. While many detention monitoring bodies, including National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs), adapted to continue their torture prevention monitoring, there were widespread concerns regarding higher risks of ill-treatment because of facilities being closed off from oversight and scrutiny (see Detention monitoring in a global pandemic).
At the international level there were ongoing efforts to strengthen safeguards and standards to prevent and address torture and ill-treatment. Most recently in Africa and in Europe, steps were taken to ban trade in the tools of torture. NPMs, with torture preventive monitoring mandates under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, were newly established in Morocco and Chile and started visiting places of detention in 2020 and February 2021, respectively.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.