Prisoners and Coronavirus

We are living under exceptional circumstances, that we cannot deny; the health crisis we are living is affecting all countries and our way of life. After this turning point, we will all have to rethink how do we want to live, and how will we want to relate with others and the environment, and what the categories human rights, justice and health mean to us. In the present article, I would like to put the focus on a very specific group of the population, prisoners, prisons and its staff. Human rights in places of detention (or rather, maybe the lack of it) is a topic widely discussed. Because of the current situation, it has even more relevance. That is so because prisons are spaces where physical distancing is nigh on impossible, and hygiene is often inadequate. Making sure that human rights are always respected in the current crisis in places of detention should be in the top list of things to consider for any country during the days we are living.

Lately, the World Health Organization has released a document (Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention) with all the considerations which should be taken into account when deciding actions to take upon prisons in order to confront the virus spreading. The mentioned document carefully details how detainees with COVID-19 or suspected to have the virus should be managed, and it is obvious that much of the advice is impossible to maintain in most countries. This includes, for example, establishing physical distance between people in the prison, or environmental measures as maintaining good hygiene. As well, they advise emptying the prisons as much as possible, sending some prisoners to self-isolate at home. This has been asked by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Comissioner for Human Rights. Getting sick in the current situation only makes inmates more vulnerable. It can be said that they are unprotected to the virus, and prisons can become a central focus of contamination.

Let’s take Spain as an example, where we can clearly see this situation. The Catalan Human Rights and Penal System Observer (OSPDDHH, for its initials in Catalan), amongst other organisations that look that work in defence for human rights, has called for the release of some inmates. Their proposal is that prisoners that find themselves with a 2nd or 3rd-degree regime or that have permits to go out of prison in order to work or do volunteering work be allowed to self-isolate at home. This measure would make prisons less crowded, thus a safer place for other inmates and staff. Last April, political prisoners from all around the world sent a letter to Michelle Bachelet denouncing the situation in prisons. Signatories were the Catalan political prisoners but as well people like Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

Trade unions of prisons staff have denounced the lack of material that workers are finding themselves to work safely during this pandemic. This situation, not only happening to prison staff but hospitals, chemists and other vital professions, is a consequence of bad management at the start of the pandemic, from which we are seeing now the consequences.

This might be even more relevant when we take into consideration the case of the Catalan political prisoners, incarcerated for the events of the 1st of October of 2017 and everything that brought there. The Spanish Supreme Court has threatened the public service that works in prisons if they were to allow that they would be suspended from work, even that these prisoners would be prisoners that could be sent home to self-isolate.

Not only there are Catalan political prisoners. For nearly 3000 days now, eight young people from Altsasu, in the Basque Country, have been incarcerated as well. Their families are demanding, again, just that: even in prison, their human rights have to be respected.

This month has also seen how nine different parties of the Spanish Congress have demanded that rights for all prisoners be respected, and for special measures be taken in order to protect their health, by signing a together manifesto.

This is a situation we should all be worried about, as it’s compulsory for every country to maintain human rights during this emergency, in prisons as well. We all must, as citizens of Europe and from a society going through this crisis, reclaim that human rights are respected for everyone.

Written by Oriol Roig – EFAy Vice-President