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Statement from the PRILA Research Group on COVID-19 in Prisons

Prisons: the rule of law; accountability and rights is a research project hosted by Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and funded by the European Research Council (grant agreement no. 679362). At a time of unprecedented crisis across the globe arising out of COVID-19, we wish to call on governments and prison authorities to ensure that the health and human rights of all those in prisons are upheld. Prisons are places which are particularly vulnerable to infectious disease and no person should be left behind during this pandemic. Many prisoners have underlying health conditions, some are in older age groups, and there are pregnant women in prisons across the world. Taking urgent steps to reduce the risks arising out of COVID-19 is also necessary in the interests of the health of the broader community. Prison health is public health.

We urge governments and prison authorities to:

1.Follow the advice of the WHO on managing the COVID-19 crisis in the prison context.

2.Uphold their solemn duty to protect the right to life and health of people in custody.

3.Act speedily to reduce the numbers of people in prison where necessary to ensure a safe custody level such that public health principles can be implemented.

4.Use alternatives to custody and/or release programmes, paying particular attention to prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and pregnant prisoners to ensure safe custody levels can be maintained.

5.Pay particular attention to the need to ensure that prisoners have access to single-cell accommodation, and free access to handwashing facilities with fresh water and soap.

6.Ensure that staff have access to, and up to date training on, the use of Protective Personal Equipment.

7.Ensure that, where necessary, prisoners have access to alternative and safe accommodation e.g. through working with housing organisations in the community, or using adapted accommodation deployed during the COVID-19 crisis.

8.Recall that public safety considerations also include risks to public health, which must be given the highest priority in the current circumstances.

9.Ensure increased access to telephones for prisoners during this period of restrictions, with appropriate sanitising of communication equipment.

10.Ensure access to video calls/Skype/email.

11.Ensure access to in-cell telephones, including state-authorised mobile phones to limit the possibility of cross-contamination and increase virtual access to family members.

12.Ensure increased access to stamps and envelopes.

13.Ensure access to educational/training materials while schools and workshops are closed.

14.Ensure access to psychological supports for prisoners and staff during this difficult time.

15.Ensure access to outdoor space, while respecting social distancing rules.

16.Ensure access to meaningful human contact each day for those in separation.

17.Ensure access to high quality cleaning products.

18.Ensure, within the constraints of security protocols, transparency about the management of prisons during this period e.g. regarding access to testing; access to hygiene products.

19.Ensure prisoners have access to up-to-date health information which is in a language and/or format that they can understand.

As a project focusing on prison oversight, PRILA also calls on governments and prison authorities to ensure that, while respecting the principle of ‘do no harm’ first and foremost, creative ways are found to ensure that independent monitoring of prisons can continue. In particular, we call on governments and prison authorities to:

20.Ensure that record-keeping is given particular attention during this period to enable decisions taken now to be reviewed, if necessary, at a later date.

21.Ensure confidential access for prisoners and staff to monitoring bodies through letter/telephone.

22.Ensure decisions taken where operational/security matters come into conflict with healthcare advice are fully documented and subject to review by monitoring bodies.

23.Ensure that decisions on temporary release for vulnerable prisoners are fully documented and subject to review by monitoring bodies. These principles apply equally to juvenile detention centres and adult prisons.

Further information and resources:

World Health Organisation here.

Council of Europe here.

Penal Reform International here.


Mary Rogan - mary.rogan at

Prila - prila at