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Prisoners are the "forgotten victims" of the Covid pandemic

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Amnesty says jails are a hotbed of virus transmission - and inmates must be vaccinated as a priority

Prisoners have been forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic, with control measures leading to serious human rights violations in prisons around the world, according to a new report from Amnesty International

The report, Forgotten Behind Bars: COVID-19 and Prisons, warns that with more than 11 million people imprisoned globally, prisons risk becoming hotbeds for the virus. 

Amnesty is calling for the millions of people languishing in overcrowded cells to be included in national vaccination rollouts.

Many inmates struggle to access soap, proper sanitation, or personal protective equipment (PPE), while physical distancing is difficult or impossible, and only limited healthcare is available. 

Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International Scotland programme director, said: “Prisons across the world are some of the most at-risk settings for Covid-19 outbreaks, we cannot neglect the right to health of people in detention any longer.

“Lack of clarity about vaccination plans, policies and treatment of incarcerated populations is a pressing global concern. As vaccine roll-out strategies take shape, failure to prioritise the health of people in detention will have catastrophic consequences for prisoners, their families and public health care. 

“No matter who you are, or where you are, people deserve access to face masks, soap, sanitiser and clean running water. PPE must be provided free of charge and governments should increase Covid-19 testing and treatment to prevent and manage outbreaks.”

The full scale of Covid infections and related deaths in prisons is hard to assess as many governments have consistently failed to publicly provide up-to-date, reliable information. However, available data points to worrying patterns of infections in prisons across the world. And as vaccine roll-out strategies and plans take shape, many governments remain silent on their plans to vaccinate prisoners who are at highest risk.

Overcrowding is widely recognised as one of the most serious problems facing prison systems today. Around 102 countries have reported prison occupancy levels of over 110%, with a significant proportion of prisoners charged with, or convicted of, non-violent crimes.

Though steps have been taken to release eligible prisoners, Amnesty’s research indicates that current release rates are insufficient to address the huge risk posed by the virus. 

Many countries with dangerously high levels of prison overcrowding - such as Bulgaria, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal - have failed to address concerns over Covid outbreaks. In other countries, such as Iran and Turkey, hundreds of prisoners detained arbitrarily, including human rights defenders, were excluded from Covid-related releases.

Many countries have resorted to dangerous measures including excessive and abusive confinement and quarantining measures to tackle the crisis, leading to serious human rights violations. In Argentina and the UK, detainees were put in isolation for up to 23 hours per day, often for weeks or months at a time.

Some Covid-related lockdown measures in prisons also impacted family visits, increasing the risks to detainees’ mental and physical wellbeing. In some instances, these sparked widespread protests and unrest in prisons, to which the authorities often responded with excessive force.

At least 71 countries have now put in place a vaccination policy for at least one clinically vulnerable group. While some of these countries have included prison populations and staff among the priority groups to receive vaccines, Amnesty’s research found that many others, including higher-income countries, are either silent or remain unclear on their plans.

Emma Jardine, policy and public affairs adviser at Howard League Scotland, added: “In Scottish prisons the severely restricted regime has meant that some people have often had to choose between using the telephone to speak to their loved ones or to have a shower.

“They were only allowed out of their cells for such a short period of time each day that they couldn’t do both. This amounts to de facto solitary confinement. Prison rules allowing this to continue for up to 18 months have recently been extended until the end of September, without parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with public health, prison inspectors or human rights commissioners.

“Despite the implementation of a largely well-managed early release scheme, momentum to tackle serious prison overcrowding in Scotland has waned. As court backlogs clear and the prison population rises further, it's unlikely prisons will be allowed to return to anything like the pre-pandemic normality that will be afforded to the wider community.”

Amnesty, as part of its wider ‘Fair Shot’ vaccine campaign, is calling on states not to discriminate against those held in detention when developing vaccination policies and plans. It also urges countries to prioritise prisoners in national vaccination plans, particularly given that their confined conditions do not allow them to physically distance, and ensure that those at particularly high risk of Covid-19 - such as older prisoners and those with chronic health conditions - are prioritised for vaccination with comparative groups in the general population.