Persons deprived of liberty require specific focus: UN-IASC Guidance on prisoners and detainees amidst Covid-19

31, Aug 2020 | CJP Team

In March this year, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was getting serious, an Inter-Agency Standing Committee issued interim guidance on how people deprived of their liberty should be treated amidst growing concerns of the Coronavirus infection.

The two agencies; Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), jointly issued the detailed guidance that said that “persons deprived of their liberty in prisons, administrative detention centres, immigration detention centres and drug rehabilitation centres, require a specific focus.” The guidance said, “Persons deprived of their liberty face higher vulnerabilities as the spread of the virus can expand rapidly due to the usually high concentration of persons deprived of their liberty in confined spaces and to the restricted access to hygiene and health care in some contexts.” It recommended “paying particular attention to persons deprived of liberty belonging to vulnerable or high-risk groups, such as the elderly, women, children, and persons with disabilities, amongst others.”

The guidance also recommended, “Public authorities should take immediate steps to address prison overcrowding, including measures to respect WHO guidance on social distancing and other health measures. Release of individuals, including children, persons with underlying health conditions, persons with low risk profiles and who have committed minor and petty offences, persons with imminent release dates and those detained for offences not recognized under international law, should be prioritized.”

On the subject of migrants in detention centers, the guidance recommends, “Authorities should urgently establish non-custodial alternatives to migrant detention in accordance with international law. Any deprivation of liberty must have sufficient legal grounds and, must take place in accordance with procedure established by law, while those detained are entitled to have their detention reviewed by a court of law. Authorities should be encouraged to examine carefully the legal basis for detention, and release anyone whose detention is arbitrary or otherwise does not comply with domestic or international standards.” Moreover, when it comes to arbitrary detentions, it says, “Those who are arbitrarily detained should be immediately released as the prohibition of arbitrary detention is a non-derogable norm and their continued detention under the current public health emergency might also severely impact their right to health and their right to life. This includes people in pre-removal detention where deportations have been suspended due to the COVID situation, as in many of such cases, the grounds for their continued deprivation of liberty no longer exist.”

When it comes to the health of persons deprived of their liberty, the guidance says, “All detainees should have access to medical care and treatment without discrimination,” adding, “Pro-active measures and monitoring should be put in place to ensure that essential personal hygiene items such as soap and sanitizer, as well as menstrual items for women and girls, are made available at no cost throughout their continued use beyond initial distribution point.”

The entire interim guidance may be read here:


Later, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), OHCHR, WHO and UNAIDS also issued a joint statement to “urgently draw the attention of political leaders to the heightened vulnerability of prisoners and other people deprived of liberty to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

On the subject of over-crowing the statement says, “In the light of overcrowding in many places of detention, which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, a health response to COVID-19 in closed settings alone is insufficient. Overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to Covid-19. We urge political leaders to consider limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures.”

It adds, “Compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres, where people suspected of using drugs or engaging in sex work are detained, without due process, in the name of treatment or rehabilitation should be closed. There is no evidence that such centres are effective in the treatment of drug dependence or rehabilitation of people and the detention of people in such facilities raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, increasing the risks of Covid-19 outbreaks.”

The statement raises special concerns about comorbidity saying, “Prison populations have an overrepresentation of people with substance use disorders, HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis B and C compared to the general population. The rate of infection of diseases in such a confined population is also higher than among the general population. Beyond the normal infectivity of the Covid-19 pandemic, people with substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis and TB may be at increased risk of complications from Covid-19.”

The entire joint statement may be read here:


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