Press Release

The IACHR urges States to guarantee the health and integrity of persons deprived of liberty and their families in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

March 31, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in the context of its Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis (SACROI COVID-19), urges States to face the very serious situation of persons deprived of liberty in the region and to adopt urgent measures to guarantee the health and integrity of this population and their families, in the face of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to ensure adequate conditions of detention in centers of deprivation of liberty, consistent with inter-American human rights standards. In particular, the Commission urges States to reduce overcrowding in detention centers as a measure to contain the pandemic.

In this sense, the IACHR expresses its deep concern at the alarming conditions of incarceration in the region, which includes precarious health and hygiene conditions and extreme levels of overcrowding, that in some countries the overcrowding rate is greater than 300 percent. This context represents a greater risk of the advance of COVID-19, particularly for those who make up vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, people living with diabetes, immunosuppressed patients, cancer patients, with autoimmune diseases, cardiac illnesses, insufficiency kidney functions, among others.

Consistent with the provisions of the Principles and Good Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, the IACHR reminds States that every person deprived of liberty under their jurisdictions has the right to receive humane treatment, with unrestricted respect for their inherent dignity, their fundamental rights, especially life and security of person, well as access to the judicial guarantees essential to protect rights and freedoms. The States are in a special condition of guarantor of this population rights, which implies that they must respect their right to life and security of person, as well as ensure minimum conditions that are compatible with their dignity. Therefore, the States should carry out concrete and immediate actions to respect and promote the rights to life and security of person for those deprived of liberty, in the context of the pandemic.

The Commission is also concerned at the recent increase in violence in places of deprivation of liberty. According to information received by the IACHR, different riots have occurred as a protest against overcrowding and the lack of personal hygiene and protection elements to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in prisons in some countries in the region. In this sense, among other cases of riots observed, the IACHR highlights those registered in the 13 prisons in Colombia, in particular the events that occurred in the La Modelo prison in Bogotá where 23 inmates died and more than 80 were injured on March 21. The Commission was also informed that inmates of the El Milagro prison in Trujillo in Peru, mutinied demanding better conditions in the face of the health emergency situation caused by COVID-19 and against the lack of food, leaving 31 inmates injured. Similarly, in Argentina, two riots were registered between March 23 and 25 that took place in the Coronda and Las Flores prisons, Santa Fe province, in demand for the sanitary measures adopted in the face of the pandemic. In these episodes 5 people died and a dozen others were injured. There has also been the case of a massive escape of prisoners, as in the case of Venezuela on March 18, where according to the public information, 84 people had escaped. In addition, news was received that in at least three immigration detention centers in New Jersey, United States, inmates are on hunger strike to protest the measures promoted by the State against the spread of the new coronavirus.

In relation to the registered situations of violence, the Commission recalls that States, as guarantors of the human rights of persons deprived of liberty, have a duty to adopt concrete actions to respect and promote their rights to life and security of person. Due to the foregoing, the Commission reiterates that States must be able to maintain order and security within prisons and detention centers. Thus, the proper implementation of protocols must be ensured to prevent riots and restore security conditions in prisons, without incurring in the excessive use of force.

The Commission recognizes the effort that some of the States in the region are implementing to contain the pandemic and prevent its spread in detention facilities. This situation requires States to make a great coordinated effort to decongest both prison units and police stations through criteria of release or adoption of alternative measures to the deprivation of liberty to promote enjoyment of human rights for all people within their territory and subject to their jurisdiction. In addition, the IACHR urges States to adopt contingency plans to prevent the spread of the virus in detention centers and to guarantee adequate medical care for persons deprived of liberty. These measures, in addition to attending to the recommendations of the health authorities and being proportional to the risk of expansion of COVID-19 in centers of deprivation of liberty, must respect the applicable obligations of international human rights law in this area.

In particular, the IACHR welcomes the initiative of the National Council of Justice (CNJ) of Brazil to contain the pandemic and prevent its spread in penitentiary centers, recommending to the courts and judges to reduce the population of people deprived of liberty, adopting measures alternatives to prison. Among the measures are the review of preventive detention cases, the adoption of home prison for the elderly and pregnant women inmates and the progression to the open regime for those who were close to receiving this specific benefit.

Furthermore, the IACHR was informed that the Chilean Public Defender's Office filed appeals with the judicial and executive powers in order to order urgent measures to lower the incarcerated population. In this sense, on March 25, the Public Defender's Office announced that applications will be filed in courts throughout Chile with the aim of reviewing the preventive detention of people from risk groups. These requests will reach, among others, people who are particularly at risk from the pandemic. Additionally, the Commission welcomes the initiative of the President of Chile, who introduced a bill to the National Congress that grants a commutative general pardon to persons deprived of liberty that are affected by COVID-19. The project proposes to commute the sentence to people over 55 if they are women, and over 60 years, if they are men, as well as to pregnant women or those who remain with their children in prison.

The IACHR also notes that the National Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Argentina has been monitoring the situation of persons deprived of liberty in the country and welcomes the recommendations of that body published on March 20. The Commission also takes note that the Local Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture of the Province of Buenos Aires has requested measures such as house arrest for vulnerable groups and the use of commutation of sentences by the Executive Power, among others.

Moreover, the Commission also values Colombia's initiatives to contain the advance of the pandemic in detention centers, in particular the policies adopted by the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC) through guidelines and care protocols to guarantee the safety of persons deprived of liberty.

In this regard, the IACHR endorses the call of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights of March 25, which urged states to proceed with due urgency to reduce the number of persons deprived of liberty and to examine the different cases to release individuals especially vulnerable to COVID-19, in particular elderly inmates and those affected by diseases.

In relation to the containment and prevention measures directed at the centers of deprivation of liberty, the IACHR reminds the States of the need to clearly define and report the reasons for imposing such restrictive measures, the estimated initial duration, and the term for their revision. Furthermore, it is essential to apply the measures transparently and without discrimination, ensuring that all detainees have equal access to protection and mitigation measures, with special attention to the needs of people in vulnerable situations. Furthermore, the implementation of protection measures must be carried out diligently and adequately to prevent people in isolation from suffering ill-treatment or any type of stigmatization, marginalization or violence.

In the event of the total suspension of visits as a preventive measure, the IACHR recalls that, in many cases, it is the relatives and visitors of persons deprived of liberty who in practice provide food and personal hygiene items, among others. For this reason, the States must ensure the supply of basic hygiene and food items, without which it is not possible to guarantee decent living and health conditions for detained persons. Likewise, the IACHR warns that the adoption of these measures cannot under any circumstances justify absolute or solitary confinement. To this extent, the States of the region accompany these restrictions with other policies or programs compatible with the right to security of person for those deprived of liberty, such as the extension of outdoor hours or the optimization of recreational spaces.

In addition, the IACHR considers it necessary to adhere to basic hygiene standards and access to necessary materials for both persons deprived of liberty and staff. In the context of a pandemic, States must ensure the adequate supply of basic preventive elements such as soaps, alcohol, gloves and cleaning products in detention centers. The Commission recommends carrying out systematic medical examinations to identify the potential risk of contagion and suspected cases and to have at least isolation capacity, as well as the necessary elements for its control and the necessary prevention material, in addition to the protective equipment for prison staff. Prison authorities must also prevent outsiders from entering detention units without proper pre-screening as a way to stop the spread of the virus.

Finally, the Commission has taken note of the measures of social isolation (stay home policies) that several countries have adopted and that includes the restriction of the freedom of movement that instated sanctions such as detention for those who defy the quarantine measures. In this regard, the IACHR instructs the States to adopt alternative measures to the deprivation of liberty to enforce the effectiveness of the restrictive measures on movement, establishing administrative sanctions, such as fines and/or coercive conduction home, with a view to to avoid overcrowding in detention facilities. Likewise, the States must prevent the occurrence of arbitrary arrests, particularly of people who circulate on public roads to stock up on food, medicines and other basic needs, in addition to respecting the principle of legality and judicial guarantees.

In this sense, and considering the context of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, regarding the protection of the rights of persons deprived of liberty, the Commission recommends that States:

1. Adopt measures to address the overcrowding of detention centers, including the reevaluation of cases of preventive detention in order to identify those that can be replaced by alternative measures to deprivation of liberty, giving priority to populations with increased health risk against a possible contagion of COVID-19.

2. Evaluate as a priority the possibility of granting alternative measures such as probation, house arrest, or early release for people considered to be in the risk group such as the elderly, people with chronic diseases, pregnant women or with children in their care and for those who are close to serve sentences.

3. Adapt the conditions of detention, particularly with regard to food, health, sanitation and quarantine measures, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facilities. In particular, guarantee that all centers have medical attention and provide special attention to populations in a particularly vulnerable situation, including the elderly.

4. Establish protocols for the guarantee of security and order in detention centers, in particular to prevent acts of violence related to the pandemic and respecting inter-American standards on the matter.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 066/20