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Coronavirus: Prison Fever

People are preparing, at different levels, for life in containment. But the COVID-19 does not stop at prison gates. // Updated on 31 March 2020 at 01:00

What measures are taken to guarantee the safety of all prisoners and prison staff? What are the consequences of the pandemic on the living conditions in prisons? Here is an overview.



Since 18 March, Prison Insider has been documenting measures taken and events observed, on the basis of the information available. Despite the very short perspective, Prison Insider attempts below a tentative reading of this planetary turmoil.

The coronavirus is a butterfly. We do not understand everything about the startling phenomenon of the coronavirus and its ‘butterfly effect’—can a flapping of wings in Brazil provoke a tornado in Texas? Little is known, yet anything and everything is said. Prison Insider will stick to its core mission: producing information that serves (good) decision-making.

Of the mass of information available, we will document the following: of the eleven million people incarcerated throughout the world, most overall are poor and as such physically and mentally vulnerable. They have much to fear from the pandemic.

Too many States flout their own laws and warehouse people and problems, disregarding rights, ethics and effectiveness. The result is a deep concern, and for some, real anxiety shared by those detained and those who guard them?

In the measures taken and the consequences observed, two major trends appear:

The first can be qualified as closing : suspension of the right of visitation by relatives; interruption of activities; blockage of temporary absences; suspensions of court audiences that impact prospects of release; mutinies, violent and deadly for some; jailbreaks, sometimes massive; ‘disinfections’ here and there but with shortages of products to practice sanitation; the absence of water to wash one’s hands in many facilities; the compromise of meals for those who rely on their loved ones for food; the prohibition of the use of hydroalcoholic hand sanitizer because of the alcohol content… and, always, the use of force to keep the lid firmly shut.

The second can be qualified as opening. It includes: the release of prisoners, whether massive or not; sentence adjustments and other forms of early release; the decrease in use of detention for short sentences and for pre-trial custody; the provision of postal stamps or phone and video calls to preserve family ties…

The time is not (yet) here for an analysis. The wave must retreat before the damage can be assessed. It will then be time to count the victims, repair the damage, and learn the necessary lessons.

More information

  • The interactive map of the John Hopkins University

  • The page of World Prison Brief updated daily by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research

  • The call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and other closed facilities

  • The call of 42 European NGOs to international institutions including the WHO and the Council of Europe

  • The statement of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) for the establishment of effective measures to protect public health and safety, including for the most vulnerable

  • The joint declaration of the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and ten NGOs addressed to African decision-makers.

  • The briefing note by Penal Reform International

  • The article COVID-19 in prison by the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) in Geneva, Switzerland

  • The statement of principles related to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of Covid-19 by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT)

  • The joint statement of 26 national and international stakeholders calling for immediate emergency measures to protect the rights of prisoners in Africa

  • The interim recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) on the COVID-19 management in prisons and other places of detention

  • The call of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the MENA rights group, and 38 other organizations for the governments of the Middle East-North Africa region to take emergency measures to protect prison populations from the COVID-19 virus epidemic

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