A Hot Bed For COVID-19: Prisons Worldwide Could Expect “Huge Mortality Rates” If Stricter Controls Are Not Enforced

On Monday, The World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe published interim guidance in an effort to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and other detention centres. The regulations come amid increasing concern for prisoners and staff, who are particularly at risk of infection according to the WHO. Overcrowding in prisons makes social distancing near impossible, meaning people in prisons are generally far more vulnerable to infectious diseases than the rest of the population. They are also more likely to suffer from pre-existing health conditions due to greater exposure to drug use, poor hygiene, and stress. Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, told the Guardian that unless adequate measures were taken, prisons around the world could expect “huge mortality rates.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged governments to “examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, such as older and sick detainees.” She added that “to drastically reduce prison populations so physical distancing becomes possible, they should also consider releasing low risk offenders.” Germany’s most populous state, North-Rine Westphalia, is set to release as many as 1000 prisoners to free up space. In Poland, there are plans to extend a programme which lets some convicts serve their sentences at home. The Justice Ministry has stated that this could benefit up to 12,000 prisoners.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the precarious nature of many systems within our society. The prison system is not an exception. Indeed, in particular, the crisis has shown the unsustainable nature of cramped and unhygienic prisons. The release of low-level offenders and political offenders around the world indicates that a justice system which does not incarcerate non-violent offenders is possible and, most importantly, more humane. However, for the vast majority of prisoners who will not be released, conditions will continue to deteriorate due to the measures taken to manage the pandemic. Earlier this month in Italy, the country worst affected by COVID-19, inmates rioted over restrictions on family visits. Nine inmates died in the Modena prison as well as three in a prison in Rieti. In Italy, prisons typically hold 10,000 more inmates than they have capacity for.

The WHO guidance suggests a number of measures, including temperature tests and health assessments for all people entering prisons, including visitors and staff.  They also recommend that prison governors and health-professionals assess the need for sanitation and disinfection products in order to ensure their immediate availability. Due to potential misuse, disinfectants containing alcohol are often banned in prisons. Although the Organization suggests greater screening of visitors, many countries across Europe, like Italy, have banned visits altogether.

The WHO has stressed that all measures should take into account the mental wellbeing of patients, providing them with alternatives to family contact, and that on no account should measures infringe on their human rights, as set out by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules). In the UK, secure phone handsets will be given to risk-assessed prisoners to replace prison visits. In France, prisoners are being given 40€ credit per month on their telephone account until the end of the confinement period. This crisis has already forced many governments to change their approach to incarceration,  and, hopefully, could result in a change of attitude towards the current treatment of detainees.

Anna Myrmus