COVID-19 – A Crucial Resource for Crucial Times

Far ahead of the curve as usual, international NGO Penal Reform International has published a much-needed resource at a time of increasing public health emergency. The publication, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison, issued on 16 March 2020, is targeted at various criminal justice actors, especially country prison services as well as prison administrators, Canada no exception.

Its application, however, potentially goes well beyond prisons as places of deprivation of liberty with relevance to many other detention settings, as foreseen under OPCAT Article 4.

PRI’s COVID-19 prison Briefing.

Multiple concerns about the high risk of potential transmission of the COVID-19 virus among federally and provincially incarcerated prisoners have been highlighted recently by different actors in the Canadian news media. A Globe & Mail opinion piece on 17 March 2020 called for the release of non-violent offenders.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies expressed some alarm earlier this week about the Correctional Service of Canada’s preparedness to manage the COVID-19 outbreak and reduce the harm to prisoners, as highlighted in a public statement.

The opening paragraph of PRI’s Briefing sets out the current state of general concern about the COVID-19 virus in relation to prison settings:

“At the time of publishing there were more than 164,000 confirmed cases of COVID19, the novel form of Coronavirus, affecting 110 countries with more than 6,470 deaths. In this briefing we assess the current situation of COVID-19 outbreaks and prevention measures in prisons and wider impacts of responses to governments on people in criminal justice systems. This briefing note argues for action to be taken now and immediately, given the risk people in prison are exposed to, including prison staff.”

According to PRI’s accompanying press release, the focus of the new COVID-19 resource is as follows:

Where widespread community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring, there are legitimate concerns of this spreading to prisons. The outbreak of any communicable disease presents particular risks for prisons due to the vulnerability of the prison population and not least because of the difficulties in containing a large outbreak in such a setting. People detained are vulnerable for several reasons, but especially due to the proximity of living (or working) so closely to others – in many cases in overcrowded, cramped conditions with little fresh air.

People in detention also have common demographic characteristics with generally poorer health than the rest of the population, often with underlying health conditions. Hygiene standards are often below that found in the community and sometimes security or infrastructural factors reduce opportunities to wash hands or access to hand sanitizer.

Any coronavirus outbreak in prisons should – in principle – not take prison management by surprise, as contingency plans for the management of outbreaks of communicable diseases should be in place. This is an essential part of the obligation of the state to ensure the health care of people in prison required by international human rights law.”

Prison, Oslo – Erik (2017).

The Briefing is replete with practical guidance as well as with country examples which have emerged to date (including from Canada) of the restrictions placed on prison regimes in the light of the global pandemic. In doing so, the resource is structured around the following themes:

  • Civil rights, right to health and preventing COVID-19 in prisons with a focus on (1) the right to health and hygiene, (2) contact with the world outside, (3) quarantine, isolation or limitation on movements within detention facilities, (4) fair trials and the right to legal counsel, (5) detention monitoring, and (6) the health of prison staff;
  • Emergency measures to reduce prison populations;
  • Prison sentences for Coronavirus-related offences.

It is highly relevant that one section of the new resource focuses on the important role of independent detention monitors during the current global public health crisis. Under the section on page 9 titled ‘Detention monitoring and right to prohibition of torture and ill-treatment’ the following is observed:

“States should guarantee access to prison for monitoring bodies. While some protective measures are legitimate, there is no evidence indicating that during the COVID-19 pandemic places of detention should not be accessed by monitoring bodies.

States should follow the principles laid out in Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, as their legal obligation for those who have ratified it, and as a guidance for those who have not yet ratified the instrument.

Access of monitoring bodies is a key safeguard against torture and other ill-treatment. It can prevent human rights violations from taking place, but also provides opportunities for reporting ill-treatment and for taking action.”

While not an OPCAT State Party, it is axiomatic that Canada should also adhere to the guidance and principles set out in PRI’s Briefing and permit continued access to prison facilities located throughout the country by independent oversight bodies. The recent Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator spelled out in no uncertain terms why independent monitoring of such facilities is so crucial in the country.

In summary, Penal Reform International has once again succeeded in providing criminal justice and human rights actors with a timely resource at a particularly trying global moment, adding to their 30 years of many accomplishments. Very well done PRI.


Read Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison.

See the related press release.

Explore PRI’s other key publications under Other Resources, including the recent publications, Women in prison: mental health and well-being – a guide for prison staff and Guidance Document on the UN Nelson Mandela Rules.

Read OHCHR’s 16 March 2020 statement on COVID-19 and human rights.