P O S I T I O N PA P E R
COV I D -19 preparedness
and responses in prisons
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Close to 11 million prisoners worldwide — as well as the officers who are charged
with ensuring their safe, secure and humane custody — must not be forgotten
during the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries should recognize the particular risks
which COVID-19 and the virus that causes it pose to confined populations for
which physical distancing is not an option. This is all the more the case in light of
the weaker health profile of prison populations. Evidence-based COVID-19
prevention and control measures in prisons are urgently needed and should be
implemented in full compliance with United Nations Minimum Standards for the
Treatment of Prisoners — in order to protect people in and outside of prison.
However, COVID-19 prevention and control measures alone may prove insufficient
for many prison systems plagued by overcrowding and other systemic challenges.
Without compromising public safety, COVID-19 preparedness in prisons should
therefore also include efforts to reduce the number of new admissions and to
accelerate the release of selected categories of prisoners.
The extraordinary risk that COVID-19 is posing in prison settings brings back into
the spotlight long-standing calls of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime
and the United Nations at large to address prison overcrowding, to limit
imprisonment to a measure of last resort and — where it is necessary — to fully
live up to the duty of care which States assume when depriving individuals of