The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) has issued detailed advices on a range of actions governments and independent monitoring bodies should take to protect people deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The public advice provides measures for authorities concerning all places of deprivation of liberty, including prisons, immigration detention facilities, closed refugee camps, and psychiatric hospitals, in order to mitigate the risks to health created by the Coronavirus.
The measures include considering reducing prison populations by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release of low-risk offenders, reviewing all cases of pre-trial detention, extending the use of bail for all but the most serious cases, as well as reviewing and reducing the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps. The advice also emphasizes that all detainees, people in quarantine and closed medical settings, their families, and all staff, should receive reliable, accurate and the latest information concerning all adopted measures.
"Within the space of a few short weeks, Coronavirus has had a profound impact on the daily life of everyone. Within prisons and other settings of deprivation of liberty, many of which are severely overcrowded and insanitary, there are increasingly acute problems which require immediate action," said Sir Malcolm Evans, Chairperson of the SPT. "Governments have to take precautionary measures necessary to prevent the spread of infection, and to implement emergency measures to ensure detainees have access to appropriate levels of health care and to maintain contact with families and the outside world," he added.
The advice also calls on independent national monitoring bodies, officially known as national preventive mechanisms (NPM), to continue exercising their preventive mandate during the pandemic, including visits to places of detention when possible, bearing in mind the legitimate social contact restrictions, and the "do no harm" principle. The advice stresses that NPMs must be able to continue their preventive work, even if full access to places of deprivation of liberty is temporarily restricted.
In addition, the SPT has postponed its visit to Madagascar, which was originally scheduled for May, in view of the current pandemic situation.