"Addressing overcrowding in prisons has become even more urgent."
By Gustavo Gonzalez and Olivier Lermet
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” This is what Nelson Mandela, former South African President, who himself spent many years in jail, said.
We marked Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18 in recognition of Mandela’s contributions to the culture of peace and freedom. On this Day, the United Nations (UN) highlights the importance of humane conditions of imprisonment, and of prisoners being part of society. The UN also recognizes the valuable work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance.
In December 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known also as the “Nelson Mandela Rules.” The Rules are based on an obligation to treat all prisoners with respect for their inherent dignity and value as human beings.
The Nelson Mandela Rules are as relevant as ever, as countries seek to address the additional challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The health risks posed by the disease as well as measures to prevent its spread have had an impact. Prisoners' access to family visits, and recreation and educational opportunities may be limited. Overcrowding and limited sanitation may minimize possibilities for physical distancing, and limited access to healthcare may prevent adequate treatment. Restrictions on access to legal counsel and further delays in judicial processes may impact on the right to a fair trial.
The fundamental right to health, and the principle of non-discrimination stipulates that persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) should be able to access the same amount and quality of healthcare as that available to the general population. This includes access to vaccines, which is particularly important to prevent deaths among the most vulnerable prisoners. Persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) are in daily contact with prison staff who return to their families and friends at the end of a workday. Moreover, most prisoners will be released to the community.
For these and other reasons, efforts to control COVID-19 in the community are more likely to succeed if strong infection prevention and control (IPC) measures, adequate testing, treatment, and care are done in prisons and other places of detention.
In this context, the World Health Organization (WHO) released interim guidance on “Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.” (WHO, March 2020). The guidance outlines broad steps that countries can take to respond to the pandemic, including through developing adequate preparedness plans; creating effective strategies to prevent the introduction, transmission and spread of COVID-19 in prisons; and dovetailing the prison health system and the national and local health and emergency planning system. This is a useful resource for management officials of facilities housing PDLs.
Different countries have adopted different responses to COVID-19 in their prison systems. Hungary and India have rolled out information technology platforms to allow Skype or phone video calls for families and lawyers of inmates. In India, this is available in 92 per cent of detention facilities in 37 states. In some countries, information technology systems have also been used to increase access to teachers and professors for PDLs, moving the delivery models for teaching and assessments to online methods and radio.
Addressing overcrowding in prisons has become even more urgent. To alleviate overcrowding, countries have been encouraged to explore options for release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk, including for persons who have committed minor, petty and non-violent offenses, those with imminent release dates, people with underlying health conditions, and those in pre-trial or administrative detention.
In 2020, Thailand released at least 30,000 prisoners through royal pardons, while 200,000 others had their sentences reduced. In India, where, like the Philippines, over 70 per cent of the prison population are pre-trial detainees, the Supreme Court proposed that convicted prisoners be released on emergency parole for four to six weeks and that interim bail be considered for those who are awaiting trial and likely to receive a sentence under seven years.
The UN encourages Member States to ensure that COVID-19 preparedness and responses in prisons and other places of detention are identified and implemented in line with fundamental human rights obligations, and comply with the Nelson Mandela Rules. In particular, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the WHO, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stand ready to provide support to the implementation of the recommendations in their Joint Statement on COVID-19 in Prisons and Other Closed Settings for Member States to address prison overcrowding.
Gustavo Gonzalez is the UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines. Olivier Lermet is the Senior Policy Advisor of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the Philippines