A new briefing, Coronavirus: Preventing harm and human rights violations in criminal justice systems, highlights the impact of responses to COVID-19 on people in detention – amounting to 11 million people – who have been left behind, ignored or forgotten. Penal Reform International exposes a lack of systematic testing and data collection in prisons across the globe, which means unknown numbers of people in detention and staff are falling ill and dying from the virus. Inadequate testing and deficient data are compounded by a lack of transparency on infection rates in some countries.
Olivia Rope, Director of Policy and International Advocacy at Penal Reform International, explained: ‘It is clear that the number of cases of COVID-19 in prisons globally is rising, in some places rapidly, but we do not know the full picture. Little or no testing has taken place in many prison systems and many countries do not report on cases and deaths in places of detention. Testing and data collection for both persons detained, and police, probation and prison personnel are critical to respond effectively to COVID-19.’
Despite political commitments, very few people have been released from prisons (a mere 6% of the global prison population) and people in detention remain at major risk of COVID-19, as well as a mounting human rights and mental health crisis. Measures to prevent the spread of the virus into and throughout prison systems in many places amount to effective prolonged ‘solitary confinement’ – a practice prohibited under international human rights standards for any more than 15 days. Penal Reform International has raised concern that these restrictive regimes have been in place for months and remain in place in some prison systems, despite easing of restrictions in the community.
Yesterday (14 July 2020), at the virtual launch of the briefing, international criminal justice practitioners and human rights leaders discussed the key findings and Penal Reform International’s recommendations for urgent and systemic reforms – in particular, our call for action to mitigate the negative impact on the health, especially mental health, of people currently imprisoned.
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, said: ‘This pandemic has clearly exposed systemic failures to uphold human rights, including those of people in detention. To end their suffering as swiftly as possible, and to enable recovery, policies must address the inequalities and protection gaps that have made some communities and individuals in many societies so vulnerable.’
The pandemic has also highlighted how underfunded and understaffed healthcare already is in many prisons. Penal Reform International’s analysis of penitentiary budgets recently showed that low levels of funding are exacerbating the global prison crisis with overcrowded systems that lack adequate levels of staffing and financial support. The new briefing restates the urgent need to ensure that people in the care of the state are adequately protected and that all available measures are taken to do this in a way that poses the least risk to their mental health and human rights.