In 2021, the pandemic persisted worldwide, with alarming implications for persons deprived of liberty. While some restrictions were lifted, many remained in place, affecting visits and access by families, lawyers, and monitoring bodies, among others, with a dramatic increase in the levels of isolation from the outside world. This has taken an enormous toll on the emotional well-being of detainees, particularly children, and their families outside prison walls. It has also intensified the difficulties in the detection and reporting of cases of torture and other ill-treatment.
Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be particularly dangerous in places of detention, as overcrowding, poor hygiene conditions and insufficient healthcare are perfect breeding grounds for the virus, prison decongestion plans initiated in 2020 did not bring about the positive outcomes expected.
In December, we co-moderated a panel entitled “Fundamental Freedoms: Locked up in the lockdown” at the EU-NGO Forum, together with FIACAT. Several partners, including SOS-Torture network members and members of the Covid-19 Crisis Action Group took the floor to address issues ranging from transparency/monitoring to overcrowding/decongestion and health/vaccination in detention.
In many countries, public health, health and civil society organisations have denounced the lack of official data, or the provision of unreliable or manipulated data, on Covid-19 cases, infection rates, health conditions and deaths of persons deprived of liberty. A similar trend has been identified with regard to vaccination campaigns in places of detention. Vaccination, when available, has been brought to persons deprived of liberty with delay compared to the general population.
To respond to this crisis and initiate long-term reforms, we launched a worldwide project to support and empower local civil society organisations in 21 highly challenging countries to address needs in detention, protecting health and freedom from torture during the pandemic. This global project, funded by the European Union, also aims at strengthening local and cross-regional actions to restore protection systems in detention.
- Together with our member CACIT, we sent a confidential letter to the President of the Republic of Togo, urging him to reopen the country’s detention facilities to family visits.
- In Colombia, the Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (FCSPP) published a collection of legal material in simple language, designed to educate people dealing with the prison system, including examples of complaints and how to address them. It included a special chapter on rights during the pandemic.
- In Mexico, our network member Documenta launched a new version of its chatbot Libertad, which is available on WhatsApp and Facebook. This user-friendly software provides information on the documents needed to file requests and appeals for the release of people deprived of liberty. A perfect tool for lawyers and laypeople alike, it can even allow prisoners or their families to take all the needed steps without resorting to a lawyer, and thus save money.
- Finally, our partner Justice Project Pakistan developed a tracker of Covid-19 cases in places of detention at the national level, in addition to working for the release of the most vulnerable prisoners.
Vaccination, when available, has been brought to persons deprived of liberty with delay compared to the general population.
- As part of this project, our SOS-Torture network member PRAWA in Nigeria held virtual workshops for welfare officers from detention centres on the importance of family visits for inmates. They piloted the installation of a disinfection chamber in one of the largest Nigerian custodial facilities to ensure safe access for inmates’ families, legal counsels, and NGOs. This was a first in the country.
- In the Philippines, a National Detention Summit with the theme “Compassionate Care Behind Bars” held in October was attended by representatives from civil society organisations and government agencies. It addressed issues including mental health in prison and the impact of Covid-19, the vulnerabilities of children in detention, jail congestion, torture, and ill-treatment. A list of recommendations was adopted, on which we will work with our local partners to ensure it is implemented.
- In Latin America, the topic was brought to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which held a hearing on 28 October dedicated to the situation of people deprived of liberty in the Americas in the context of the pandemic. The event was organised by the Litigators’ Group Against Torture in Latin America, comprised of 17 civil society organisations (CSOs) from 10 countries convened by the OMCT. Commission members were shown video testimonies from relatives of persons deprived of liberty, which were also part of a social media campaign around the hearing. The CSOs called on the Inter-American Commission to issue new guidelines and be more active in denouncing the ongoing restrictions and deteriorating conditions of detention in the context of the pandemic.
"Not seeing his children affected him a lot"
The wife of a Mexican detainee speaks about isolation and its effects on the mental health of prisoners and their families during the pandemic.