There are currently an estimated 11 million people either incarcerated or in custody, around the world. In prisons and jails, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation during the Covid-19 crisis have exacerbated these preexisting problems. Professional health physicians and Human Rights Watch advocates explain that “prisoners share toilets, bathrooms, sinks and dining halls”. Also, sometimes prisoners lack access to running water. These inadequacies reflect the (at times) — dismal quality of life that incarcerated people experience, globally.
Overcrowding and unclean living conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated the immense violations of human rights in prisons and jails. Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines’ prisons are currently at 450%, 432% and 537% capacity, respectively. Overcrowding allows Covid-19 to spread much more easily through prisons. Furthermore, it makes single rooms unavailable for both sick and healthy inmates. With the current state of affairs, physical distancing is simply not an option. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners expects incarcerated people infected with Covid-19 to receive medical attention in line with the WHO guidelines. Overcrowding hinders the fair treatment of incarcerated people — especially considering that prisoners are not typically afforded sufficient care from doctors during pre-pandemic times (let alone amid a pandemic).
Prisoners and Human Rights
Prisoners deserve basic human rights, access to healthcare and safe public health. UNAIDS, the WHO and the UNHCR are all calling for a mass release of prisoners — from a public safety standpoint. The release of incarcerated people who qualify as high-risk for Covid-19 (e.g., the elderly, mothers with children or who are breastfeeding, pregnant women and non-violent offenders) reduces health risks. These risks would otherwise remain unaddressed within prisons and jails (given their resources). Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS calls it [the Covid-19 crisis] an “unprecedented global emergency” and recognizes the dire need to defend the human rights of incarcerated people, worldwide.
Solitary Confinement during Covid-19
Solitary confinement is typically a severe punishment for inmates. However, the U.S. has mandated the practice for infected inmates in response to the Covid-19 crisis in prisons. Before the Covid-19, 60,000 inmates were in solitary confinement in federal prisons — whereas now there are 300,000. This practice has proven to be a disincentive for inmates to come forward as sick, even if they are knowingly infected with Covid-19.
Practical Solutions to the Problem
More practical and effective solutions to the Covid-19 crisis in prisons and jails include thorough testing and screening for the virus, to stay ahead of the spread. Another solution — comprehensive safety practices of employees who travel in and out of the facilities, daily. Still, there is too much overcrowding and simultaneously, too many at-risk populations in prisons and jails. These facilities cannot properly preserve the human rights and well-being of inmates during the current pandemic. Non-violent offenders, pregnant and/or breastfeeding women, people who are detained because they cannot afford bail, elderly people and those with misdemeanors are all examples of groups that could be safely released.
An Expert Outlook
UNAIDS, the U.N., the Prison Policy Initiative, the WHO and numerous other organizations tracking the health and safety of incarcerated people insist that the true solution to the Covid-19 crisis in prisons is to eliminate overcrowding. Therefore, the solution to overcrowding in prisons may well be to release large amounts of qualifying incarcerated people. This may hold true in particular, amid a global pandemic.
– Nye Day