The legal in-court and advocacy actions took place in the context of the general curtailment of access to justice when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Many countries have reduced or temporarily suspended court operations and related criminal justice services. These measures have generally led to reduced judicial and external oversight of prisons and other places of detention, increasing case backlogs, and lengthy delays in judicial proceedings. These reduced operations also constitute a serious threat to the right to a fair trial, to the ability of victims of torture and ill-treatment to seek protection and justice, and for persons deprived of liberty to access detention and court services and remedies.
The systemic problems endemic to detention facilities in many countries, such as overcrowding, inadequate health services, and poor living and sanitary conditions, including poor cell ventilation, have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. This has heightened the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks and endangered the lives of persons deprived of liberty, staff and the surrounding community. Thus, compared to the wider population, persons deprived of liberty have been at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, which can spread rapidly in detention, due in part to the high concentration of persons in confined spaces and to restricted access to hygiene and health care. Further, as the pandemic has deepened preexisting inequalities and exposed vulnerabilities, some groups in detention have been even more at risk or more adversely affected by the pandemic, such as women, children, LGBTI people, migrants, older persons, persons with disabilities, and those with underlying health problems.
Protecting persons deprived of liberty has required, first and foremost, reducing the prison population to allow physical distancing in overcrowded detention facilities. In turn, some governments took proactive legislative, administrative, and judicial measures to reduce the number of people in detention through the use of non-custodial and early-release measures. Countries, including Congo-Brazzaville, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Nigeria, Philippines, and many others, announced unprecedented mass releases of detainees, mostly non-violent offenders. The most commonly implemented measures have been: amnesties; bails; electronic monitoring; fines; house arrest; parole; suspended sentence orders; temporary or early releases.
Overall, efforts have focused on releasing certain categories of persons deprived of liberty, such as women, including those who are pregnant, children, the elderly, individuals with underlying health conditions, and those detained for minor or nonviolent offences. In some countries, those release mechanisms were extended to places of detention outside the criminal justice system. Health conditions, and those detained for minor or nonviolent offences. In some countries, those are released.
In addition, states are responsible for protecting the lives and health of those who remain in detention, including ensuring physical distancing within the facilities, providing medical treatment, access to medicines, and adequate sanitary conditions. However, while some authorities were too slow to take action, the measures taken by others were inadequate or raised other human rights concerns. For example, family and lawyer visits were suspended or restricted and not replaced by increased access to alternative means of communication. In other cases, solitary confinement was widely used to create physical distancing.
The measures imposed by prison authorities in many countries have prevented monitoring bodies from carrying out their duties, as their access to places of detention has been limited or temporarily suspended. Consequently, they have not been able to directly assess the treatment of people in prisons and how their health is being protected against Covid-19. This has raised other concerns since monitoring visits play a key role in the prevention of torture and other ill-treatment in places of detention.
There are also remarkable similarities across regions regarding the lack of transparency surrounding Covid-19 data within criminal justice systems, such as tangible, reliable, and disaggregated data about the impact of the virus on prisons and other places of detention, including the number of Covid-19 infections and related deaths, as well as the mitigation measures adopted by authorities. Some lawyers and activists are challenging these restrictions.
Differences among domestic legal systems and available remedies, the variety of detention realities, social and economic factors, as well as legal traditions and frameworks influence the types of legal actions and advocacy strategies in the various countries.
AND PROTECT PEOPLE IN DETENTION
Civil society organizations and lawyers have developed and conducted a wide array of legal strategies, actions, and resources to protect and provide urgent assistance to persons deprived of liberty in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Litigation practices have involved various constitutional, criminal, habeas corpus, and public interest litigation, ranging from individual to collective cases and including judicial or quasi-judicial bodies. Cases around the world have alleged violations of a number of rights, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to be free from torture and other forms of ill-treatment, the right to information, the right to food, and the right to claim benefits while serving a sentence. Litigators used habeas corpus petitions for early or compassionate release and public interest litigation as the main tools to reduce overcrowding, improve detention conditions, and protect groups in situations of vulnerability. Amicus curiae briefs drew judicial attention to international human rights and health standards, thereby creating added pressure on authorities to adopt concrete measures or reforms.
In addition, many civil society organizations deployed legal aid services to assist those in detention particularly affected by the health crisis or with chances to benefit from early release or non-custodial measures. For example, in Colombia, the Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos (CSPP) produced and circulated habeas corpus templates for persons deprived of liberty to file petitions on their own to claim urgent access to medical
Lawyers and activists stepped up their legal and advocacy strategies to denounce and prevent further deterioration of detention conditions and have employed a diverse range of interventions, including in-court actions and legal advocacy at the domestic and international levels aiming to reduce overcrowding, improve conditions and access to health in detention, protect the right of persons deprived of liberty to maintain contact with the outside world, and ensure transparency and access to information on detention facilities.
treatment, virtual communication with their relatives or lawyers, and the application of non-custodial measures, notably house arrest. CSPP also published a manual called “Manual de Derecho Penitenciario,” which includes a section focused on Covid-19 in prisons, compiling resources and legal actions to undertake.
1.1.1. SEEKING RELEASES THROUGH HABEAS CORPUS PETITIONS
During the pandemic, the first urgency has been to reduce the number of persons deprived of liberty to avoid overcrowding in detention facilities, and so, one of the most commonly used types of litigation, where it exists, was habeas corpus petitions, filed either individually or collectively. A habeas corpus petition, common to many national judicial systems and incorporated into international law, is used to bring a detainee before a court to determine if the person’s detention is lawful.
Habeas corpus claims for the release of children, women, and LGBTI people have proven effective in some countries. In certain contexts, older people deprived of liberty and those with pre-existing chronic diseases which belong to a risk group were allowed to serve their sentences at home. Collective habeas corpus petitions seem more effective than other types of legal action, as they have a potentially larger impact due to the release of large numbers of people in a shorter period.
In Argentina, collective habeas corpus petitions requesting release were filed in the state of Mendoza by the lawyers of the Association XUMEK, resulting in a court order requiring the government to review all cases of at-risk prisoners who could be placed under house arrest and urging authorities to secure the periodic supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene items to detainees, as well as authorizing the temporary use of mobile telephones while family visits were suspended. The judicial decision allowed many individuals to serve their sentences at home. XUMEK also filed a collective habeas corpus petition to release children deprived of liberty and detainees in psychiatric institutions. In May 2021, the Supreme Court of Argentina ordered the Supreme Court of the Buenos Aires province to monitor human rights violations committed against persons deprived of liberty, following a petition filed by Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) in 2020, in light of the lack of implementation of the “Verbitsky” collective habeas corpus ruling (2005) and increasing overcrowding levels.
In Brazil, habeas corpus petitions brought by Public Defender’s Offices have been seen as a valuable strategy to reduce prison overcrowding. For instance, in the state of Espírito Santo, a collective habeas corpus petition released persons deprived of liberty who were detained because they could not pay their bail. Similarly, a collective habeas corpus petition filed in the state of Ceará resulted in the release of individuals who were detained for alimony debts. Both decisions have subsequently been extended at the national level.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Alliance pours l’Universalité des Droits Fondamentaux (AUDF) filed, in April 2020, a collective habeas corpus petition to the prosecutors of the city of Kinshasa on behalf of detainees in pre-trial detention whose detention had exceeded the length allowed by law. The petition provided a list of 20 persons for release, given the risk of further human rights violations in case they would contract Covid-19 in detention. The collective habeas corpus petition prompted their release.
In Honduras, the National Committee to Prevent Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment submitted a collective habeas corpus petition to the Supreme Court of Justice to protect at-risk incarcerated people from exposure to Covid-19, requesting the Court determine whether the imprisonment of certain categories of persons was lawful, and to consider early release for those who were particularly vulnerable. This category included detainees suffering from chronic diseases (such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular illnesses), those over the age of 60, and people living with HIV/AIDS. The request was filed in March 2020 and accepted by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in April 2020. Although the habeas corpus petition was not granted in this case, recommendations were issued despite the reluctance of the military authorities who oversee the prison administration.
In some countries, individual habeas corpus petitions have been effective in leading to broader impacts. For example, in Nepal, when the Supreme Court suspended remand and jail/bail hearings due to Covid-19, the Public Defender Society of Nepal (PDS-Nepal) filed an individual habeas corpus petition for a client who remained illegally detained, emphasizing the right to be heard on the essential issue of detention. The Supreme Court freed their client and shortly thereafter announced they would renew remand and jail/bail hearings and allow interlocutory appeals of these decisions.
Again, in Nepal, PDS-Nepal filed an individual habeas corpus petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of a convicted juvenile for resentencing to home confinement, arguing that the child’s rights to life, liberty, and special protection under the law were being violated. The Supreme Court granted the writ and released the child into parental custody, considering the child's best interests. This successful case paved the way for more children to be released from detention during the pandemic, though individual habeas corpus petitions are still required to be filed. PDS-Nepal has shared this decision widely among lawyer networks and with juvenile correction centres across the country so that other legal practitioners can cite the case to build stronger arguments for the release of children.
In Brazil in 2020, the Institute for Defense of the Right to Defense (IDDD), mobilized 92 lawyers and 11 law students through its network to be part of the project “Task Force COVID-19: for the right to defend life.” The Task Force established a partnership with the Public Defender’s Office of the state of Sao Paolo that referred relevant cases in areas where it does not have a presence. Task Force lawyers requested the release or replacement of pre-trial detention with house arrest in the first instance and through filing habeas complaints to three levels of courts. The Task Force represented 448 individuals under arrest or in pretrial detention in the state of Sao Paolo and obtained positive decisions for 118 of them.28 of them were released by the judges in the first instance request. Less than half of positive decisions actually mentioned the pandemic among the reasons for release.
In Kenya, in September 2020, KELIN and Katiba Institute filed a petition before the Constitutional and Human Rights Division of the High Court in Nairobi challenging the unlawful detention of patients for failure to pay the costs of Covid-19 testing and medical treatment while in isolation.
1.1.2. IMPROVING CONDITIONS THROUGH CONSTITUTIONAL PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION
Civil society organizations and Public Defender Offices have also used constitutional public interest litigation to address the lack of access to health and hygiene services in detention facilities as well as the need to reduce overcrowding. These collective petitions were filed in the public interest, without specifying plaintiffs, and relied on scientific evidence to argue the violations of rights.
In Mexico, a collective amparo complaint was filed by Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez against the Governor of the state of Morelos, the Ministry of Health and other State authorities. Admitted in November 2020, this lawsuit used a public health rationale to argue, among others: “that the failure of authorities to enact pandemic guidelines and policies runs contrary to their obligation to protect those in the Morelos state prison system from Covid-19.” This case also highlights the use of expert opinions by national and international experts (epidemiology, public health, forensics, and pre-trial justice experts) as part of strategic litigation efforts around the Covid-19 pandemic and human rights violations. Unfortunately, the judge dismissed the amparo in December 2021, more than a year after it was filed, based on the presumption that government tells the truth in its responses and no omissions in the acts of government agencies are proven. Centro Prodh is appealing the decision to the federal judiciary.
Also, in Mexico, Documents A.C. filed and won two landmark collective amparo actions. The first one, filed in April 2020, prompted the Second Administrative District Judge of the City of Mexico to order a wide array of measures to protect persons deprived of liberty in 39 psychiatric hospitals. The second amparo, filed in May 2020, targeted the protection of persons involuntarily deprived of liberty in 350 drug-treatment residences. In both cases, the judiciary requested authorities to favour the discharge of the individuals when social and/or family support was available, to guarantee their access to the outside world, and to guarantee the access of those deprived of liberty and their families to information on the measures taken to control the spread of Covid-19 in the respective institutions.
In Brazil, a collaboration between the Defensoria Publica and Ministerio Publico in Rio de Janeiro resulted in the filing of a collective civil action against the state of Rio de Janeiro. This legal action argued that while the first urgency remains to reduce the number of incarcerated persons to avoid overcrowding, under international human rights law, states are responsible for taking appropriate, immediate measures to protect the lives and health of those in prison.
Using law and public health policy, this legal action aims to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the prison system in Brazil, which has the third-largest prison population in the world. It also emphasises the critical role the judiciary can play in protecting those under its jurisdiction from imminent and irreparable harm that can arise from contracting Covid-19. The filing included a statement by eminent medical and scientific experts affiliated with Physicians for Human Rights, Yale and Stanford Universities and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ). While the precautionary measures were denied in this case, a decision on the merits is still pending.
Also, in Brazil, in August 2020, IDDD filed a Public Civil Action to prompt the state of São Paulo to adopt measures to protect the fundamental rights of the prison population, given non-compliance with basic protocols to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the prison system. The requests were: a) screening criteria, exclusively by health professionals, for all people who enter prisons and socio-educational units to identify possible suspected cases of respiratory diseases and immediate care of any identified cases; b) carrying out information campaigns on Covid-19, with information on prevention and treatment; c) Uninterrupted supply of water to ensure the maintenance of proper hygiene habits; guaranteed daylight for at least six hours a day; d) supply of medicines and adequate food; e) supply of essential hygiene items, such as soap, hand sanitiser (preferably in dispensers installed in circulation areas) and masks; f) supply of cleaning materials to allow for an increase in the frequency of cleaning of cells and spaces for circulation; g) adoption of measures to avoid delays in receiving the parcels delivered by families (“jumbo”); h) upgrade of medical teams to guarantee access to health for persons deprived of liberty, adults, and children. After a favourable decision, the Court of Justice of São Paulo partially ruled on some requests but dismissed several others. The decision determined that the state guaranteed uninterrupted access to water in the penitentiaries and that health standards must be observed in the preparation and storage of food supplied to detainees. The state and IDDD appealed the decision.
In Pakistan, at least 500 persons deprived of liberty were released in the province of Sindh by the Sindh High Courts, and the Islamabad High Court issued similar directives. According to the report published by Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan, “a Supreme Court decision put a halt to this countrywide momentum that could have seen a significant reduction of the inmate population. Leveraging a technicality regarding the authority of the lower courts, the Supreme Court’s strong rebuke to the lower courts had a chilling effect on efforts to decongest prisons and even led to the re-arrest of prisoners who had been released in compliance with the directives of the Islamabad and Sindh High Courts.” In its decision, though, the Supreme Court asked prison authorities to prepare lists of at-risk detainees who could be considered for release. These included women and older detainees above the age of 60, juveniles in pre-trial detention, those who had served 75% of their sentence and those suffering from pre-existing conditions. In fact, five months later, in September 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered officials to implement a Supreme Court decision to release all women deprived of liberty which was under trial, convicted of minor offences, or who had served most of their sentences. As of June 2021, however, no lists had been submitted to the Court, and no women detainees had been prepared for release.”
1.1.3. PROMOTING HEALTH AND SAFETY
THROUGH REGIONAL AND UNHUMAN
Submissions of complaints, often with requests for precautionary measures to regional and international human rights bodies, were used quite frequently during the first year of the pandemic to ensure the health, safety, and human dignity of those in detention. Some of the regional and international bodies that were engaged include the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR), United Nations special procedures and the United Nations human rights treaty bodies.
Petitions and requests for precautionary measures before the IACHR alleging inhumane conditions of detention and overcrowding have contributed to the release of individuals in situations of vulnerability and the improvement of detention conditions in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela. In Colombia, for example, a request filed to the IACHR for the adoption of precautionary measures prompted immediate results, including access to specialised health care or medicines following requests for information made by the IACHR to the State authorities.
In the Maldives, a civil society organisation has worked closely with UN special procedures and UN human rights treaty bodies in order to help migrant workers who were arbitrarily detained for protesting unpaid labour at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and to address inadequate treatment and conditions within migration detention facilities where they were being held. Despite these efforts, migrant workers were deported by the Maldivian government without informing their lawyers.
Another creative legal strategy was the submission of an amicus curiae to an existing pending case, with the aim of raising Covid-19-related arguments. Following the submission of a case by the Pan African Lawyers Union to the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) seeking an Advisory Opinion regarding the need to decriminalise petty offenses in Africa, the Open Society Justice Initiative filed an amicus brief in the case citing the urgent need to decriminalize vagrancy laws since they over-incarcerate poor and marginalized groups, putting them at higher risk of contracting Covid-19. In December 2020, the court issued its opinion confirming the discriminatory nature of these laws.
1.2. ADVOCACY AND COMMUNICATION
Civil society organizations have strengthened and built new partnerships at the national, regional and international levels to exchange information and experiences and have also created networks to monitor human rights violations in custodial settings. In many instances, CSOs successfully worked with authorities in reviewing individual cases of persons deprived of liberty whose legal status or health conditions made them eligible for release. They also supported authorities in compiling and systematise data to map and identify detainees who are more vulnerable to Covid-19. Engagement and dialogue with State authorities and information and awareness campaigns have emphasised that Covid-19 transmission among prison populations is a public health issue that goes beyond the criminal justice system.
1.2.1. MEETING WITH STATE AUTHORITIES
Civil society organisations have engaged with relevant authorities to request information and propose and explore possible solutions, leading to some improvements in prison conditions and detainee releases.
In Pakistan, emphasizing how the spread of Covid-19 in prisons is a public health concern contributed to addressing overcrowding issues. Providing authorities with short, medium, and long-term recommendations based on guidelines by international bodies supported the effectiveness of some measures.
In Colombia, several approaches contributed to the implementation of Covid-19 mitigation strategies in certain prisons, including holding a virtual public hearing in Parliament to expose and address the impacts of the pandemic on prisons; and a webinar organised by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In March 2020, several civil society organisations in Tunisia, including OMCT, met with multiple State institutions, including the Instance national pour la prévention de la torture (a national preventive mechanism) and published a joint statement to request a decrease of the prison population. Within two months, 5.000 detainees were released, bringing the numbers in line with the available beds.
In Togo, meetings between the Collectif des Associations Contre l’Impunité au Togo (CACIT), State authorities, and prison administrators allowed the opening of quarantine cells in the prison of Lomé and the subsequent agreement to relocate affected detainees in a dedicated detention facility with adequate medical support. By providing essential health, sanitation, and relief materials to detainees, the organisation succeeded in maintaining a certain level of prison access and monitoring.
Furthermore, advocacy efforts led by CACIT in Togo and supported by OMCT prompted the release of 1.048 detainees from 13 prisons across the country, including the release of 17 children deprived of liberty in the Brigade pour Mineurs in Lomé.
In Congo-Brazzaville, Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT) in Congo publicly demanded from authorities “the overcrowding relief in prisons … and respect for the judicial pledges of prisoners to fight against the coronavirus.” Meetings with authorities resulted in some concrete changes in prison conditions, including improvements in hygiene and sanitary measures, installation of quarantine cells, and compulsory Covid-19 testing. Supplying information on promising Covid-19 responses from other countries also helped convince authorities to implement prison decongestion practices in the country.
In Pakistan, Justice Project Pakistan developed a vulnerability grading index tool, which enabled prison authorities to identify and protect the most vulnerable prisoners from contracting Covid-19, and offered guidance about certain levels and standards of care. Recommended measures included early or temporary release, in particular of pre-trial detainees and individuals convicted for minor or non-violent offences.
In Afghanistan, in 2020, the International Legal Foundation launched an urgent call to action resulting in a special amnesty decree in line with their recommendations. This advocacy strategy, conducted in conjunction with litigation efforts, resulted in the release of 1.880 prisoners, including 137 women and 302 juveniles.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Coalition against Torture successfully advocated for adopting an Amnesty Act to reduce overcrowding by focusing on the release of those detained for minor or non-violent offences. This act contributed to the release of over 1.000 detainees in the country.
126.96.36.199 INFORMATION CAMPAIGNS AND AWARENESS RAISING INITIATIVES
Civil society organisations have produced and published reports, guides, legal briefs, briefing papers, public statements, press releases, and other relevant materials to disseminate accurate information regarding the risks and implications of the Covid-19 pandemic in places of detention, in line with guidance and recommendations issued by international bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO). Public information campaigns, including through social media, have been launched to draw attention to prison conditions, as well as the special vulnerability of persons deprived of liberty to Covid-19. Awareness raising campaigns have been developed to address stigma-related issues that impact public perceptions towards detainees as well as their prospects of release.
For example, in the African region, a regional joint statement entitled “The spread of Covid-19 requires urgent and immediate measures to be taken to protect the rights of detainees in Africa” was published by nearly 30 national and international actors, including ACAT and CACIT, calling for the action of Member States of the African Union.
In Tunisia, to address the severe psychological impact for detainees and prison agents from the Covid-19 crisis and ensuing restrictions, the OMCT, in cooperation with the prison administration and its partner organisation Psychologues du Monde Tunisie, produced a video (in Arabic) to raise awareness of both prisoners and prison staff to Covid-19. Some 17.000 prisoners, as well as staff in 28 prisons and five juvenile detention centres, saw the 10-minute film featuring a well-known Tunisian actor.
Along with the SOS-Torture Litigators’ Group in Africa, the OMCT published a report on the prisons in Central and West Africa, calling for the adoption of urgent measures at the judicial and institutional levels to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spreading in overcrowded prisons with inhumane detention conditions.
In a similar effort, the OMCT, together with the members of the SOS-Torture Latin America Litigators’ Group, published the report “Covid-19 and detention”, pointing out the need to undertake structural prison reforms to address deeply rooted human rights concerns that the pandemic has further exacerbated.
In the Philippines, the Medical Action Group used TeleMedicine to coordinate with the Bureau of Jail and Management Penology to provide e-consultations with doctors for persons deprived of liberty. The Medical Action Group also conducted online seminars for those held in Manila City Jail Male Dorm and its staff on topics such as the nature of Covid-19 and its transmission route, protective measures that should be taken, possible symptoms and related mental health issues. Balay Rehabilitation Center also provided medical kits, protective equipment, and psychosocial support to persons deprived of liberty.
The International Legal Foundation published a tool for legal aid providers, which includes various actions to mitigate the severity of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people in detention.
The OMCT also prepared a guidance brief that provides good practices for members of the SOS-Torture Network; other organisations also use that.
OSJI published a legal brief that details the international legal framework governing the duty of States to protect the health and life of incarcerated persons during the Covid-19 pandemic. The brief aims to support legal practitioners and advocates fighting for and litigating the human rights of those in prison.
Another example comes from Mexico, where Documents A.C., concerned about the lack of official data, created a new section within their online platform Observatorio de Prisiones (Prison Observatory) to promote transparency and disseminate information on the situation of the prison system across the country. The Observatory includes information on the number of Covid-19 infections and related deaths and preventive measures adopted by prison authorities to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
1.3. MONITORING AND GATHERING DATA ABOUT PLACES OF DETENTION
In addition to litigation and advocacy efforts, the inspection and monitoring of detention facilities can serve as another important safeguarding tool against breaches of human rights. Conducting monitoring during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major challenge. While regular monitoring visits of juvenile detention facilities and mental health institutions remain crucial, many civil society organisations have revisited their strategy by including virtual monitoring visits and communication via phone calls, e-mails, and videoconferences. In addition, some organisations have interviewed recently released individuals to collect information about detention conditions and measures related to Covid-19.
In Colombia, the civil society organisation Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos (CSPP) established a practice of conducting online interviews with persons deprived of liberty via phone calls and video conference tools to collect information on detention conditions. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, at least 36 of the 121 existing prisons in the country have been monitored remotely. CSPP and other civil society organisations composing the Comisión de Seguimiento (monitoring committee) of the Constitutional Court’s T-388 ruling of 2013 also submitted petitions to the Constitutional Court that resulted in orders to grant access and monitoring of independent bodies in detention facilities.
In Nepal, human rights lawyers and civil society organisations have jointly monitored the country's eight juvenile detention facilities through telephone inquiries and field visits. The NGO Advocacy Forum published a briefing paper on the human rights situation of those institutions during the pandemic.
In Armenia, a monitoring group composed of ten civil society organisations conducted visits to three psychiatric institutions to identify urgent health needs, promote access to alternative means of communication, and call on authorities to release some individuals.
In Pakistan, Justice Project Pakistan created a live global map tracking all reported cases of prisoners testing positive across the world. To collect information, Amnesty International, in collaboration with Justice Project Pakistan, conducted interviews with recently released prisoners detained during the pandemic. They deliberately sought interviews with former prisoners who were able to speak more freely about their experiences. In the analysis of the testimonies and for the presentation of the findings, statements of people currently in prison and released were systematically compared and, whenever possible, corroborated with other data available to present as accurate a picture as possible. Subsequently, they published a report titled “Prisoners of the Pandemic”, which identified prisons as places where outbreaks were more likely and would require urgent government intervention.
In some countries, civil society organisations and lawyers have also mobilised National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to collect data on the treatment of prisoners to protect their fundamental rights. For example, in Mexico,Documenta A.C. called on the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) hosts the NPM to monitor the practice of transferring detainees without due process following the sudden closure of prisons (e.g., Puente Grande Prison), which enabled the documentation of ill-treatment during the mentioned transfers. In some countries, family members of persons deprived of liberty have also played a key role in gathering information on the conditions and challenges in places of detention. Civil society organisations have provided support and orientation to families in several countries to be able to effectively check on the well-being of detained relatives and collect information on human rights violations committed in detention settings. Also in Mexico,Documenta A.C. published the report “Covid out of the prisons”, in May 2020, based on data collected via family members of persons deprived of liberty through a questionnaire.
Courtesy: OMCTFull report available at: Report_Torture-andCovid19_EN_240222.pdf (omct.org)
1. Penal Reform International, “Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison”, 16 March 2020, p. 2.; World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe, “Preparedness, Prevention and Control of COVID-19 in Prisons and Other Places of Detention, Interim Guidance”, 15 March 2020, pp. 1-2.
2. Amnesty International, “Forgotten Behind Bars: Covid-19 and Prisons”, 18 March 2021, p. 12.; Inter-Agency Standing Committee, “Interim Guidance, COVID-19: Focus on Persons Deprived of Their Liberty”, developed by OHCHR and WHO, 27 March 2020, p. 2.
3. UN Secretary-General, “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”, 9 April 2020, p. 2.
4. In particular the gender implications of COVID-19 in prisons are yet to be fully analysed but the initial evidence shows that the impact of COVID-19 on women and LGBTI prisoners have been different than cis male prisoners and they have faced specific challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, women and LGBTI prisoners have been the less visible victims of COVID-19 behind bars and the policies adopted by the authorities have been very often gender blind putting them at greater risk. See: Vicki Prais, “The Impact Of COVID-19 On Women Prisoners”, Human Rights Pulse, 1 June 2020; Olivia Rope, “Coronavirus and women in detention: A gender-specific approach missing”, Penal Reform International, 4 June 2020,; Astrid Valencia & Josefina Salomón, “Abuse and fear: Trans women speak out about life in Nicaragua’s prisons during COVID-19”, Amnesty International, 9 September 2020.
5. “Governments around the globe have reduced prison populations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated one million, mostly non-violent offenders, being granted early release… The global study of prisoner release schemes in 53 jurisdictions found that many governments took swift action to protect the health and safety of corrections staff, prisoners and the wider community, with over 475.000 people released from prisons and other places of detention between March and July 2020 alone.” See: DLA Piper, “A global analysis of prisoner releases in response to COVID-19”, 2021.
7. Open Society Justice Initiative, “The Right to Health Care in Prison during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Legal Brief, July 2020.
9. See for example: Instituto de Defesa do Direito de Defesa (IDDD), “Primeiro ano da pandemia nas prisões brasileiras foi de negligência, falta de itens de prevenção e água”, 15 April 2021; KELIN, KATIBA Institute, the International Commission of Jurists-Kenyan Section, Transparency International-Kenya and Women’s Link Worldwide, “Five organisations filed an urgente case at the High Court in Nairoby (Kenya) on the right of access to information”, 8 July 2020.
10. Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos (CSPP), “Manual de derecho penitenciario”, 2021.
11. M asha Lisitsyna, Natasha Arnpriester, “Insight: Five Ways Attorneys Are Protecting Human Rights of the Incarcerated”, Bloomberg Law, 15 April 2020.
12. Xumek, “Comunicado de prensa: habeas corpus colectivo y correctivo ante la situación de emergencia por el COVID-19”, 1 April 2020.
13. See: Xumek, “Habeas corpus correctivo y colectivo servicio penitenciario de Mendoza sistema de responsabilidad penal juvenil sistema de salud mental de Mendoza”, https://xumek.org.ar/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Habeas-Corpus-Colectivo-CorrectivoCOVID-19.pdf.
14. See: Xumek, “Habeas corpus correctivo y colectivo servicio penitenciario de Mendoza sistema de responsabilidad penal juvenil sistema de salud mental de Mendoza”, https://xumek.org.ar/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Habeas-Corpus-Colectivo-CorrectivoCOVID-19.pdf.
15. Agência Brasil, “Covid-19: Espírito Santo prisoners Gain Freedom by Injunction”, 28 March 2020.
16. See for more details: Natalia Pires de Vasconcelos, Maíra Rocha Machado, Daniel Wei Liang Wang, “COVID-19 in prisons: a study of habeas corpus decisions by the São Paulo Court of Justice”, Forum Practical Perspectives: Special Section COVID-19, Brazilian Journal of Public Administration, Rio de Janeiro 54(5), September – October 2020, p. 1480-1481.
18. In contravention of the recommendations of international human rights bodies, including the United Nations Committee against Torture.
11 May 2020.
20 . See: The International Legal Foundation, “Justice in Crisis: COVID-19”, https://www.theilf.org/covid-19.
21 . Holly Hobart, & Ajay Shankar Jha Rupesh, “In Nepal, Creative Litigation is Protecting Vulnerable Communities Amidst COVID-19”, 14 May 2020.
22 . The Instituto de Defesa do Direito de Defesa (IDDD), “Justice and denial: how the magistrates turned a blind eye to the pandemic in prisons”, August 2021, p. 14-15.
25. Ibid. p. 21.
26. Ibid. p. 41.
28 . Katiba Institute, “Petition challenging forceful detention for failure to meet costs of isolation and treatment of covid-19 in public health facilities”, 30 September 2020.
29 . Centro Prodh, Open Society Justice Initiative, Amparo: “Centro Prodh vs. the Governor of the state of Morelos et al.”, 29 October 2020, https://www.justiceinitiative.org/litigation/centro-prodh-vs-the-governor-of-the-state-of-morelos-et-al. See: Albertina Ortega Palma, “Expert Report on the Management of Dead Bodies in Custody and the Covid-19 Pandemic”, 2 October 2020; Antigone Onlus, “Italian Policies to Prevent Covid-19 and Contain its Spread in Prisons”, 5 June 2020; Luis Fondebrider and Mercedes Doretti and Luis Prieto Carrero, “Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), Technical Report on Measures for Preventing Transmission and Handling the Deceased by Covid-19 in Detention Centers”, June 2020; Irish Penal Reform Trust, “Affidavit of Fíona Ní Chinnéide”, 21 August 2020; Javier Carrasco Solís, Instituto de Justicia Procesal Penal, “Expert Report on the Obligations of Pre-Trial Services (Unidad de Medidas Cautelares) of the State of Morelos During the Covid-19 Pandemic”, 2 October 2020.
30 . Documenta AC, “Juez ordena a gobierno de AMLO a garantizar salud en psiquiátricos ante Covid-19”, 8 May 2020.
31 . Open Society Justice Initiative, Conectas and Elas Existem, Amici Curiae brief: “Defensoria Publica and Ministerio Publico in Rio de Janeiro vs. State of Rio de Janeiro”, 20 June 2020.
32 . Amnesty International & Justice Project Pakistan, “Prisoners of the Pandemic the Right to Health and COVID-19 in Pakistan’s Detention Facilities”, p. 5. For the Supreme Court decision see: https://www.supremecourt.gov.pk/downloads_judgements/ crl.p._299_2020_07042020.pdf
33 . DAWN, “PM Imran directs authorities to release women prisoners in line with SC order”, 2 September 2020.
34. Amnesty International & Justice Project Pakistan, “Prisoners of the Pandemic the Right to Health and COVID-19 in Pakistan’s Detention Facilities”, p. 5.
35 . Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos (FCSPP), “Solicitan medidas cautelares a la CIDH en favor de las personas privadas de libertad”, 21 April 2020; see also, El Tiempo, “Piden a CIDH medidas cautelares para 25.000 presos en Colombia”, 21 April 2020.
36 . Human Rights Watch, “Maldives: Covid-19 Exposes Abuse of Migrants”, 25 August 2020.
37 . Open Society Justice Initiative, “Press release: Open Society welcomes African Court’s Ruling against “Arbitrary” Vagrancy Laws”, 4 December 2020.
38 . See: Open Society Justice Initiative, “Justice Initiative Welcomes African Court’s Ruling against “Arbitrary” Vagrancy Laws”, 4 December 2020.
39. Justice Project Pakistan & Group Development Pakistan, “Policy Recommendations - Safeguards for Pakistani Prisoners during COVID-19”.
40. Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos, Audiencia Pública Virtual, “Crisis Carcelaria en el marco de la pandemia por COVID-19”, 6 April 2020.
41. CIDH & OEA, “La situación de los derechos humanos de las personas privadas de libertad en el contexto de la pandemia del COVID-19”, webinar, 4 June 2020.
43. See the urgent action call launched by OMCT and members of the SOS-Torture network in Africa: “COVID-19 and prisons in Africa: the risks of contamination are enormous”, 26 March 2020.
44. OMCT & CACIT, “La libération de mineurs détenus en relation avec le Covid-19 doit être suivie de nouvelles mesures urgentes”, press release, 6 October 2020.
45. See: Prison Insider, Africa: coronavirus, prison fever, Congo – Brazzaville, https://www.prison-insider.com/en/articles/afriquecoronavirus-la-fievre-des-prisons. For the press release see: https://www.prison-insider.com/files/baefd129/communique_de_presse_ acat_congo_n_i_001.jpg
46. Justice Project Pakistan, “Pakistani Prisoners’ Vulnerability to COVID-19”,
25 March 2020.
47. International Legal Foundation Afghanistan, “The International Legal Foundation Afghanistan’s Urgent Call to Action to Relevant Afghan Authorities on COVID-19 Justice Sector Response”.
48. Coalition Against Torture in Kyrgyzstan, “The Coalition Against Torture Urges the Legal Community to Take Immediate Actions on the Situation With COVID 19”.
49. ACAT / Benin, ACAT / Congo Brazzaville, ACAT / Chad, ACAT / Ivory Coast.
50. See: “The spread of COVID-19 requires urgent and immediate measures to be taken to protect the rights of detainees in Africa”, Joint statement, 24 March 2020.
51. OMCT Tunisie, “Vidéo de sensibilisation COVID 19”, 4 May 2020.
52. OMCT & CACIT, “Afrique et Covid-19 : Urgence sanitaire et urgence carcérale”, December 2020.
53. SOS-Torture Latin America Litigators’ Group, “Covid-19 y detención en América Latina”, May 2020.
54. The Medical Action Group (MAG) is a non-profit organisation of physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, health students, and health workers established in 1982, see: https://magph.org/about
55. Balay Rehabilitation Center is a Philippine human rights NGO providing psychosocial services and rehabilitation to internally displaced persons and survivors of torture and organised violence, see: https://balayph.net
56. International Legal Foundation, “Coronavirus Pandemic: Guidance for Legal Aid Providers to Protect Health and Human Rights of Detainees”.
57. OMCT, “Building our Response on COVID-19 and Detention - OMCT Guidance brief”, April 2020.
58. Open Society Justice Initiative, “The Right to Health Care in Prison during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, July 2020.
59. See: Documenta, “Observatorio de Prisiones”.
60. Advocacy Forum-Nepal, “Factsheet on COVID-19 and its effect on Juvenile Justice System in Nepal”, June 2020.
61. See Justice Project Pakistan, Interactive map with the number of prisoners infected by and dead from COVID-19 worldwide: https://www.jpp.org.pk/covid19-prisoners/
62. Amnesty International & Justice Project Pakistan, “Prisoners of the Pandemic the Right to Health and COVID-19 in Pakistan’s Detention
Facilities”, p. 7.
63. Ibid. Hasnaat Malik, “Prisoners and the pandemic”, The Expressed Tribune, 14 February 2021.
64. Proceso, “ONG pide intervención de la CNDH en el traslado de internos de Puente Grande”, 28 September 2020.
65. Documenta A.C., “Covid fuera de la cárcel”, May 2020.