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They ask states to guarantee the health, well-being and human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty

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  • Persons deprived of their liberty with symptoms of Covid-19 or who have tested positive should be monitored and treated in compliance with the latest indications and WHO recommendations.

Joint statement by UNODC, WHO, UNAIDS and OHCHR on Covid-19 in prisons and other detention centers:

We, the leaders of global institutions charged with ensuring health, human rights and development, join forces to draw the attention of Governments to the high vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic of prisoners and other persons deprived of their liberty. We urge all those responsible in the different countries to adopt the necessary measures in the field of public health, to attend to the needs of this vulnerable population that is part of our communities.

While we know that the risk of Covid-19 going into prisons and other detention centers varies from country to country, we insist on the urgency with which it is necessary to minimize the presence of the disease in these settings. Likewise, the application of the necessary preventive measures should be guaranteed, in order to ensure a gender perspective and avoid even greater outbreaks of the coronavirus disease. Likewise, we insist on the need to establish an updated coordination system that brings together the health and judicial sectors, keeps prison staff well informed and guarantees respect for each and every one of human rights.

Reduce overcrowding

In light of the overcrowding observed in many detention centers, which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, a single health response to Covid-19 seems insufficient in these closed settings. Such overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to prevention, preparedness or response to Covid-19.

From our institutions we ask political leaders to consider deprivation of liberty, including preventive detention here, as a last resort, especially in cases where prisons are overcrowded. We encourage all of you to strive to take other non-custodial measures. These efforts should also encompass release mechanisms for those most at risk of contracting Covid-19, such as older people and prisoners with previous illnesses. Similarly, we propose to also release other people whose liberty does not compromise public health, for example, individuals convicted of minor and non-violent crimes, giving special consideration to women and children.

If we want to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 entering and spreading in prisons and other places of deprivation of liberty, we must provide a swift and robust response aimed at ensuring safe and sound custody, and at reducing overcrowding. It is of utmost importance to maintain maximum cleanliness and hygiene in places of deprivation of liberty, in order to prevent the entry of the virus or limit its spread.

Mandatory detention and rehabilitation centers, where people suspected of drug abuse or sex work, are held without due process, on the excuse of offering them treatment or rehabilitation. There is no evidence that these centers are effective in treating drug dependence and rehabilitating people. Furthermore, the detention of people in these centers violates some of the human rights-related aspects and threatens the health of detainees, thereby increasing the risks of Covid-19 outbreaks.

Guarantee health, safety and human dignity

All States are called upon to guarantee, at all times, not only the safety, but also the health, well-being and human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty and those who work in detention centers. This obligation must always prevail, regardless of the state of emergency.

Decent living and working conditions, as well as free access to basic health services, are intrinsic elements of this obligation. There must be no discrimination on the grounds of the legal or any other nature of persons deprived of their liberty. Health care in prisons, including preventive, complementary and curative treatment, should be of the highest possible quality, or at least equivalent to that provided in the community. Priority responses to the Covid-19 currently underway in the community, such as hand hygiene and social distancing, are often restricted and even impossible indoors.

Guarantee access to continued health services

Among the prison population is an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB), and hepatitis B and C, compared to the general population. The infection rate of diseases in such a confined population is also higher than in the general population. Beyond the normal infectivity of the Covid-19 pandemic, people with substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis, and TB may be at increased risk for complications from Covid-19.


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To ensure that the benefits of treatments started before or during incarceration are not lost, steps should be taken, in close collaboration with public health authorities, to enable people to continue their treatment uninterruptedly at all stages of the arrest and after release. Countries should adopt a new approach to their health systems, in which prisons do not deviate from continuing care and integrated with community health services.

Therefore, it is necessary to reinforce prevention and control measures in closed environments, as well as increasing access to quality health services, including here uninterrupted access to the prevention and treatment of HIV, TB, hepatitis and opiate dependence. Authorities must ensure constant access and flow of quality health products to prisons and other detention centers. Staff, healthcare professionals, and service providers working in closed environments should be considered an essential workforce for the Covid-19 pandemic response, and should therefore receive the personal protective equipment and support that they need so much.

Respect human rights

In their responses to Covid-19 indoors, States must respect the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty. Any restrictions that may be imposed must be necessary, be based on evidence, be proportionate (that is, be the least restrictive option), and not be arbitrary. The disruptive impact of these measures should be actively mitigated, for example by improving access to phones and digital communications when visits are limited. Certain fundamental rights of persons deprived of their liberty, such as those relating to their guarantees and safeguards, must continue to be fully and consistently respected. Included here are the right to legal representation, as well as access to external inspection bodies at places of deprivation of liberty.

Adhere to the rules and guidelines of the United Nations

We call on all political leaders to ensure that preparedness and responses to Covid-19 in closed environments are identified and implemented in line with fundamental human rights, that they respect the guidelines and recommendations of the World Health Organization ( WHO) and that they never consist in torturing or carrying out any type of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. In prisons, any intervention must respect the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela rules).

Persons deprived of their liberty with symptoms of Covid-19 or who have tested positive should be monitored and treated in compliance with the latest indications and recommendations of the WHO. Prisons and other detention centers should be part of national plans for Covid-19 with the dedicated participation of affected population groups. All Covid-19 cases should be reported indoors to the responsible public health authorities, who will then report it to national and international authorities. In line with our mandates, we remain available to support the speedy implementation of the above recommendations.

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