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HomeWorldImpact Of COVID-19 ‘heavily Felt’ By Prisoners Globally: UN Expert

Impact Of COVID-19 ‘heavily Felt’ By Prisoners Globally: UN Expert

People incarcerated across the world are being
“disproportionately affected” by the COVID-19 pandemic
according to a UN expert on prison reform.

Wednesday, the impact of the virus in prison settings is
being discussed at the 14th
UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice

which is underway in Kyoto, Japan.

Philipp Meissner is
a prison reform expert at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC). UN News spoke to
him ahead of the event in which he is

How badly are prisoners around the
world being affected by COVID-19?

Prison systems and
the more than 11 million prisoners worldwide have been
disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It’s
estimated there are more than 527,000 prisoners who have
become infected with the virus in 122 countries with more
than 3,800 fatalities in 47 countries.

With limited
testing capacity in many jurisdictions and the rapidly
evolving situation, the actual number may be much higher. It
should also be recognized that due to their close and
regular interaction with prisoners, prison officers,
health-care professionals and others working in prisons,
also face an enhanced risk of infection. Undoubtedly,
prisons are high-risk environments for COVID-19 for those
who live and work there.

Where are prisoners
suffering most?

The impact is heavily felt by
prisoners in the majority of countries on all continents.
Even relatively well-resourced penal systems face serious
challenges in mitigating the impact of the pandemic in
prisons. The consequences are particularly severe in prison
systems that have been over-stretched to start with,
including due to systemic neglect, a lack of staffing and
other resources. That has led to poor prison conditions, for
example insufficient sanitation, hygiene and health

Prison overcrowding, which continues to
affect a majority of countries worldwide, exponentially
increases the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the actual
feasibility of introducing meaningful infection prevention
and control measures.

What difficulties do national
authorities face in fighting the pandemic in prison

Already prior to the pandemic, many prison
systems struggled to even cater for the basic needs of
prisoners and ensure prison health. Sufficient space,
nutrition and drinking water, access to sanitary items and
decent sanitary facilities as well as proper ventilation in
accommodation and working areas, are not a given in many
prisons around the world. And access to personal protective
equipment (PPE), infrared thermometers or testing capacities
specific to COVID-19 is challenging.

These factors are
aggravated by the typically weaker health profile of prison
populations, including a higher prevalence of both
communicable and non-communicable diseases.

principle of equivalence of care, which should provide
prisoners with access to health services free of charge and
of a similar standard as provided in the community, is not
ensured in many countries. It is also crucial that
international standards, in particular, the UN Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the so-called
Nelson Mandela Rules, are adhered to.

The atmosphere
in prisons has become tense in many countries, further
nurtured by anxieties, fears and uncertainties amongst both
prisoners and prison officials. Prison riots and other
security incidents in around 50 countries have showcased the
importance of communicating around COVID-19 in a transparent
manner and, as much as possible, with the active involvement
of prisoners.

The measures adopted in many countries
have typically resulted in the further tightening of prison
regimes, including the suspension of visits as well as very
restricted access, if at all, to rehabilitation programmes
and other constructive activities outside of accommodation

Not being able to see families and children
over extended periods of time, has a serious impact on the
mental health and well-being of prisoners, including
incarcerated mothers and fathers, and significantly
aggravates the suffering inherent in a situation of

Is enough attention being paid by
national authorities to the plight of prisoners during the

Prison management and services are a weak
link in the criminal justice systems in many countries.
Prisoners constitute a segment of society which is easily
forgotten by policymakers and the general public

From the outset of the pandemic, UNODC and
others have been very vocal about the need to firmly embed
prisons, prisoners and prison personnel into the overall
COVID-19 public health response of countries. While many
jurisdictions are heeding these calls and have engaged in
commendable efforts, more needs to be done to fully address
the plight of prisoners during the pandemic and to mitigate
the risk of COVID-19 in prisons; that should include
vaccination programmes.

What solutions are being
found to stopping the spread of the virus in

One of the key issues for prisons is severe
overcrowding and so many countries have sought to curb the
continuous inflow of prisoners; for example by issuing
suspended sentences for less serious crimes and by engaging
in the emergency release of prisoners, in particular those
who are at risk or near the end of their

It’s estimated that more than 700,000
prisoners have been authorized for release globally during
the pandemic.

How can the UN support improved
prevention measures in prisons globally?

The United
Nations is advocating for holistic prison reform as well as
a reexamination of the current scope of imprisonment with a
view to addressing over-incarceration and prison

Specifically, UNODC has engaged with
national prison and correctional services from more than 50
countries to assist in enhancing measures to prevent and
control infections, to ensure continued adherence to minimum
prison standards, as well as to promote, in suitable cases,
an increased use of alternatives to

UNODC’s global support has

  • In Uganda, 16 water tanks, 40 hospital
    beds, soap, several thousand mattresses and blankets were
    procured to enhance COVID-19 preparedness. Video
    conferencing equipment was supplied to accelerate case
    management through virtual court hearings. Prisoners also
    benefitted from additional mobile airtime to maintain
    contact with their families as well as post-release
  • Similar initiatives are ongoing in
    Kenya, Somalia and several countries in Southern Africa. In
    Malawi, prisoner accommodation areas were renovated to
    improve ventilation and access to
  • Support has also been provided to
    countries in the Sahel region, including medical equipment
    for prison infirmaries in Mauritania. 
  • In
    Bolivia, Lebanon, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka,
    Somalia and Zambia and other countries, UNODC provided
    prison authorities with urgently needed PPE including
    infrared thermometers, face masks, gowns, gloves, and hand
  • UNODC continues to conduct
    webinars and on-line training courses on COVID-19 prevention
    and responses in prisons in countries including Brazil,
    Egypt, Pakistan, Peru, the United Arab Emirates,
    Saudi-Arabia, as well as other countries in the Southern
    African, Eastern European and Central Asian
  • In Mauritania, a prison radio station
    will be set up with UNODC support in three prisons to
    provide regular information on COVID-19 awareness, hygiene
    and health. 
  • In Namibia, UNODC ensured the
    continued involvement of prisoners in constructive
    activities by supporting the adjustment of a vocational
    training workshop into a production line for soap and hand
    sanitizers with a view to bolstering prevention measures.

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