COVID-19: Authorities must protect health of detainees, staff and ultimately surrounding communities

08 April 2020
wikimedia commons
wikimedia commons

Geneva (ICRC) – Detaining authorities around the world who have not yet taken measures to prevent and mitigate the effects of COVID-19 inside places of detention are urged to do so immediately to protect the health of detainees, staff and wider society. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross fears that places of detention may be hit hard by the pandemic as detainees are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Clean water can be a luxury while soap, chlorine and other necessary equipment may not be available in many places of detention, particularly in low-income countries or those affected by conflict. Such facilities are often overcrowded, which prevents physical distancing. They may also lack ventilation and have insufficient health care, contributing to the easy transmission of infectious disease. 

“Prisons are not walled off from the world when it comes to disease transmission. Viruses can enter and leave a detention facility through family visits, detention staff, delivery personnel and detainees who enter or leave when newly sentenced or going to court. Detainee health must be protected, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also for the good of wider society,” Vincent Ballon, the head of ICRC’s detention unit.

Prison authorities everywhere are urged to implement infection prevention and control measures. We know from experience that improving access to clean water, hygiene materials and other measures such as the setting up of hand-washing stations can prevent the spread of disease inside and outside detention facilities. Places of detention need to adapt their daily routine to mitigate the risks of contamination while preventing excessive and unnecessary disruption of the daily life of detainees. The ICRC has seen such measures prevent the spread of Ebola and cholera in prisons.

The Geneva Conventions require that prisoners of war and civilian internees are entitled to regular medical inspections to supervise their state of health and detect contagious diseases. The Conventions provide direction to ensure isolation wards in order to prevent the spread of contagious diseases if necessary. Isolation and segregation measures must be humane at all times, and not prevent the right of detainees to contact with the outside world.

Keywords: COVID-19 prison