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Detainees More Vulnerable to COVID-19

The current public health emergency crisis has started to shine more light on the situation of persons deprived of their liberty. Even before the crisis, several States were already struggling to comply with the international standards that regulate deprivation of liberty. Preexisting issues have also sadly contributed to exacerbating the vulnerability of detained individuals in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, mainly due to the high risk of the virus spreading in confined spaces.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, invited States to take urgent measures to protect individuals in vulnerable situations. “COVID-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres, as well as residential care homes and psychiatric hospitals, and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations,” warned Bachelet in a press release.

In prisons and penitentiaries, overpopulation, often poor sanitary conditions, and limited access to medical attention are currently major concerns. Several countries have taken exceptional measures to reduce the number of detainees in their prison system. Colombia, for example, recently adopted a decree authorizing home arrest for detainees who are considered particularly vulnerable to the virus. Although this decree is a step in the right direction towards upholding the human rights of detainees in Colombia, only 3.3% of the prison population is in a position to take advantage of it. (Find out more.)


Protecting the rights of detainees

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules) set out the detention conditions States must provide to detainees in order to fulfill their international obligations. Rules 15, 22, and 24 are especially relevant in light of the current context:


15. Prisoners shall be required to keep their persons clean, and to this end they shall be provided with water and with such toilet articles as are necessary for health and cleanliness.


Health services

22. 1) At every institution there shall be available the services of at least one qualified medical officer who should have some knowledge of psychiatry […]


2) Sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals. Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers […]


24. The medical officer shall see and examine every prisoner as soon as possible after his admission and thereafter as necessary, with a view particularly to the discovery of physical or mental illness and the taking of all necessary measures; the segregation of prisoners suspected of infectious or contagious conditions; the noting of physical or mental defects which might hamper rehabilitation, and the determination of the physical capacity of every prisoner for work […]


In response to the pandemic, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a document called Pandemia y Derechos Humanos en las Américas, in which it recommended that States take necessary measures to prevent overcrowding in prisons. These measures involve, among other things, considering alternatives to imprisonment. The Commission invited States to prioritize implementing measures in favour of those at higher risk of contamination, including elderly detainees, pregnant women, and mothers who breastfeed their child. As for those individuals found guilty of serious human rights violations or crimes against humanity, the Commission encouraged States to lead a thorough analysis of the situation before taking any measures, and to enforce stricter criteria.


Danger and impunity 

In several countries, it is simply impossible to comply with social distancing measures in penitentiary environments due to prison overcrowding. One example is the women’s prison of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala, where 153 detainees and 13 children currently live in precarious conditions, as exposed by a joint report released by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and la Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (UDEFEGUA). The study reports a number of shortfalls, including insufficient space in prison cells, lack of proper ventilation, and an absence of natural light. In addition, female detainees and their children do not have access to medical attention nor adequate food. The document also reports that the prison building is in an appalling state, compromising the security of its inmates.

The same can be said with regard to a number of prisons in Haiti. In response to the issue of overcrowding, the State of Haiti has authorized the judicial release of certain detainees. However, the Organisation des citoyennes et citoyens pour une nouvelle Haïti reported serious inconsistencies, including with regard to the release of inmates charged with murder, rape, or infanticide. In light of these observations, the Organization has requested that an investigation be opened.

Haiti is not an isolated case, however. In Honduras, the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas (COPINH) condemned discussions over the release of Sergio Rodríguez Orellana and Douglas Bustillo, both sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, respectively, for the murder of human rights defender Bertha Cáceres. Guatemala also faced a similar situation: several trials involving war crime accusations have temporarily been suspended, and some war criminals that have already been sentenced have seized the opportunity to request immediate release on the grounds of being at risk for contracting COVID-19. 

This is certainly a topic to be monitored. 

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