Covid-19 in Prisons

Governments must vaccinate millions of 'forgotten' prisoners to keep Covid under control - Amnesty

Overcrowded cell in Manakara prison (south-eastern Madagascar).
Overcrowded cell in Manakara prison (south-eastern Madagascar). © Amnesty International (Photo:Richard Burton)

Amnesty International claims that jailed prisoners have been abandoned to their fate as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread globally. 


The rights group says governments must include prison inmates in their national vaccination drives if Covid infections are to be brought under control. 

Already faced with the systemic challenges of poor sanitation and overcrowding the world over, inmates have suffered from inadequate measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within prisons. 

In fact, Amnesty claims that the lack of control over the transmission of infections has led to serious human rights violations. 

In its report Forgotten Behind Bars: Covid-19 and Prisons, the rights organisation calls for governments to include the millions of prisoners living in overcrowded conditions in their national vaccination drives.  

To research the report, Amnesty gathered data and testimonies on conditions in jails and the prevalence of Covid-19 in 69 countries. The rights group also looked at issues related to poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, and endemic diseases, which existed before the pandemic. 

The role of the state

Amnesty International’s Tamara Léger says that despite the cooperation and data from developed countries such as the United States, corroborating the information was challenging.

“The data that we were looking for in this report covered everything from he number of detainees and prison staff affected by infections and deaths,” say Léger. "But we were also looking at what access they had to preventative measures, treatment, testing and screening.”

The report concludes that governments have failed to collate and publicly provide up-to-date and reliable information on the conditions and spread of Covid-19 behind prison walls.

Underlining every state’s responsibility under the Universal Charter on Human Rights,  she said countries are obliged to “take care of the lives and health of any person in their custody.

 “There are a lot of measures that can be taken which will not cost much to the states. And we’re calling on all states to implement them. The lack of resources, including financial resources is not a good reason or an excuse not to provide, access to health care for detainees.”

France under the spotlight

These shortcomings are not confined to poorer nations nor pariah states. Among the 69 countries included in the report, France has been called out by Amnesty International for frequently lacking preventative and protective measures in its prisons.

For Léger, this highlights the problems with  established correctional systems and how to apply sanitary measures across those systems without compromising security.

“We observed that masks and gel were often unavailable for detainees," she said. "There's at least one prison where detainees were not allowed to wear masks, because internal regulations forbade detainees from hiding their faces.

“There were also issues with detainees accessing gel because of internal regulations on alcoholic products. But this is in line with our findings from other countries,  notably that personal protective equipment was often unavailable, inadequate or - even when it was available - just insufficient,” she added.

Reducing overcrowding

In a bid to deal with the spread of Covid-19 within prisons, 2020 was marked by an unprecedent wave of prisoner releases around the world as a pressure valve to manage overcrowding and address the spread of Covid-19 behind bars.

600,000 prisoners were released last year but given that the global population of jails is at least 11 million, it is not enough to have any tangible impact on the situation in jails.

“Of course, there are guidelines to be followed when states release detainees. And the aim is to protect both the detainees and the outside population," says Léger. 

“One of the guidelines is to ensure that these releases are conducted properly. And we know that detainees are being screened and tested before they can be released.”  

So, should prisoners be the last to receive vaccines, given their situation? 

“We hope not, and that's why we're releasing this report today.

 Preventing Covid transmission, within and between prisons and the community, is vital to protect everybody against infection,”  Léger adds. 

“The bottom line is that we'll only be safe when when everybody is safe. And for that, we have to ensure that prisons don't become hotbeds of Covid-19.” 

As vaccine diplomacy has mutated into vaccine nationalism, and the tempers of former allies become frayed over access to vaccines, it is hard to envisage  jailed prisoners getting to the top of the Covid queue.

Tamara Léger is Madagascar Programme Advisor with Amnesty International based in Johannesburg, South Africa



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