Posted in:

COVID-19 Crisis and Civil Issues in Prisons

The COVID-19 crisis has stricken the world in innumerable ways. While public health still remains of great concern, SARS-COV-2 also continues to expose and exacerbate other previous human rights issues. In South Korea, members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, infamous for accusations that their leader claims to be the Korean Jesus, were previously experiencing job loss, harassment, and even familial abuse due to their faith. Now that a member, Patient 31, contracted the virus, the entire country has utilized the virus to place singular blame on the group. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, an entire religious group cannot freely practice their faith and instead do so in fear.

Like the above case, the virus has only made other civil issues. Often forgotten in normal circumstances, prison systems have become hotspots for outbreaks, with inmates in the United States being five times more likely to contract the virus and three times more likely to die than the common citizen. Though there are some signs of progress to address and combat injustices, solutions are not universal across regions or across the globe.

The benefits of physical distancing in curbing the spread of COVID-19 are touted by medical professionals and shared worldwide. The structure of prisons, however, generally do not allow for appropriate distancing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, prisons are typically over capacity, making any efforts to mitigate spread difficult to impossible. In contrast, inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California, USA who test positive have been placed in solitary confinement, irregardless of the crime they committed.

In an ideal scenario, prisons would maintain proper physical distancing between staff and prisoners, facilities would be kept hygienic, and everyone would have access to proper personal protective equipment (ppe) (eg medical-grade masks). However, in substandard conditions, cracks have arisen, namely in the use of face masks. While some facilities are able to provide these resources, others are not. Additionally, lack of education regarding the proper use of face masks and good hygiene means that efforts to curtail the spreading of the virus may be less effective.

Governments have taken different approaches to address the spread of COVID-19 within prisons. Leaked letters from officials in Iran suggest that the government knew prisons needed assistance in obtaining ppe, disinfectants, and other medical equipment and yet ignored requests. In Egypt, there is some evidence of the government silencing individuals who tried to warn about the health concerns within prisons and called for the release of certain inmates. Even within the United States there are disparities in reporting and testing, calling into question the validity of published data and reported conditions. However, there have also been some improvements and decisive actions made by governments. The same prison in San Quentin that placed inmates in solitary confinement has also released about 18% of non-violent occupants. An amnesty order in Zimbabwe also aided in the release of some prisoners. These efforts are aimed at making physical distancing more practical.

While only so much can be done to change the environment within prisons and certain restrictions are necessary to help curb the spread of the virus, these stark measures do raise concerns about how much prison systems and governments are doing to keep inmates and staff safe and healthy. Furthermore, there continues to be uncertainties into what education is provided on public health. Some have suggested that imprisoning people in such conditions is an infringement of the Mandela Rules, noting that prisoners are entitled to the same standard of healthcare as the general populous. With this and the high transmission rate of COVID-19, it will be necessary for prison and governmental officials to expedite prevention and mitigation measures within correctional facilities.