Press Release

IACHR concerned about specific risks faced by Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas during the COVID-19 pandemic

September 9, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has noted through mechanisms including Resolution 01/20, Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas, the specific vulnerability of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas, which has got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The IACHR therefore urges States to take immediate action to respond in a timely manner to the problems affecting prison systems which are reportedly being exacerbated in the current context. The IACHR particularly stresses its call for reductions in prison populations, by implementing alternative measures to deprivation of liberty.

The Commission observes that the specific vulnerability faced by persons deprived of liberty is a consequence both of structural deficiencies in prison systems around the Americas—largely stemming from high degrees of overcrowding—and of a failure to implement timely prevention and response measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Based on the information it has had access to, the IACHR notes that prison systems in the region suffer, among other problems, (i) a lack of space to enable adequate social distancing, provide appropriate medical care, and prevent infection in severely overcrowded contexts; (ii) a lack of sufficient testing to detect the virus; and (iii) a lack of equipment necessary to ensure adequate protection and hygiene.

Concerning high levels of overcrowding around the Americas, the IACHR observes that 3,872,463 individuals are currently being held in the region’s prisons, according to data issued by the World Prison Brief. Given those prisons’ capacity, facilities are currently operating at 144.2%, on average. The situation is particularly worrying in certain countries with particularly high degrees of overcrowding. Haiti’s prisons are especially overcrowded, operating with an occupancy rate of 454.4%, followed by Bolivia (363.9%) and Peru (240.3%). Brazil, in turn, has the third-largest prison population in the world. According to official data issued by the National Prisons Department (Depen), there were 755,274persons deprived of liberty in the country at the end of December 2019, which meant prisons were operating at 170.74%. In Honduras, according to figures issued in late June by the National Institute for Prisons (INP, by its Spanish acronym), the country has a prison population of 21,872 persons, which according to information provided by the State, this represents an occupancy level of 148%.

The IACHR has repeatedly expressed its concern about high degrees of overcrowding around the region. The Commission has noted that overcrowding is one of the main problems concerning deprivation of liberty in the Americas and entails, among others, serious risks for the lives and personal integrity of detainees. The IACHR has particularly stressed the serious consequences of overcrowding for the health of persons deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The IACHR notes that overcrowding increases the risk of catching infectious diseases, as it said in a press release issued on March 31. According to the available reports, the situation is particularly worrying for vulnerable groups, including older adults and persons with chronic or autoimmune diseases. The IACHR further notes that the space available in overcrowded prisons will make it impossible to enforce adequate social distancing to prevent infection with COVID-19.

In this context, and given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR observes that several countries in the Americas have taken varied measures to prevent the spread of the virus, mainly by reducing prison populations. These countries have mainly implemented two types of action—measures aimed at applying alternatives to deprivation of liberty and measures that seek to commute jail sentences through pardons and amnesties. These initiatives have generally targeted persons who have committed nonviolent crimes and who belong to particularly vulnerable groups, including older adults, persons with chronic or autoimmune diseases, pregnant women, and mothers with young children. Among measures aimed at implementing alternatives to deprivation of liberty, the IACHR highlights the following: (i) Honduras’ Decree 36-2020 of June 10, 2020, which enables the application of alternatives to deprivation of liberty for crimes that were directly associated with prison terms in Article 184 of the Code of Criminal Procedure; (ii) Legislative Decrees of Peru  No. 1459 and No. 1513, issued on April 14, 2020 and June 4, respectively; (iii) Colombia’s Legislative Decree 546-2020, issued on April 14, 2020; and (iv) Recommendation 062/2020 issued by Brazil’s National Council of Justice of March 17, 2020. The IACHR notes that Mexico’s Amnesty Law of April 20 and Peru’s Supreme Decree 004-2020-JUS of April 22 also seek to enable detainee releases. Similarly, Supreme Decree OO6-2020-JUS of Peru, issued on May 1, 2020, establishes criteria for granting release with respect to adolescents in contact with criminal law.

Despite these initiatives, however, the situation of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas is a major cause of concern for the IACHR in the context of the pandemic, because these persons particularly risk infection and lack of access to adequate medical care to treat conditions linked to COVID-19. Based on the available data, an estimated 138,522 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 in prisons around the region and at least 1,504 inmates had died of complications linked to the virus by mid-August. The IACHR warns that actual figures could be significantly higher, given the failure to gather and report accurate data concerning the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the various prison systems.

The IACHR observes that the lack of sufficient testing in detention facilities is a further indication of likely underreporting in infections and COVID-19-related deaths. For example, in Brazil, only 64.536 persons deprived of liberty (less than 0.4% of the total prison population) had been tested for the virus by September 3, according to Depen data. In Honduras, the State reported that 4,593 diagnostic tests had been carried out in prisons, which amounts to only 20.9% of the country’s prison population. The IACHR notes that the percentage might in fact be even lower, since this figure reportedly included prison staff too. In Venezuela, it is mainly staff who are being tested at detention facilities, rather than inmates, according to information provided by inmate families to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory.

The Commission also observes that one of the most common measures taken by States in the Americas to prevent infection with COVID-19 in the context of the pandemic has involved suspending visits to prison facilities, which deprives inmates of access to hygiene and health protection products. According to information provided to the IACHR by civil society organizations, access to personal hygiene products that were previously provided by inmate families was being severely restricted in countries like Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. In Brazil, according to the results of a questionnaire administered by the Pastoral Prison Commission to various actors linked to the prison system, 65.9% of inmates said that hygiene products and food sent to persons deprived of liberty  were not reaching their intended recipients. In this context, the Commission stresses the call issued by the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and notes that States must allow families to provide inmates with necessary supplies of food and hygiene products, while taking any protection measures needed to contain the spread of the virus.

Restrictions on visits could also have serious consequences on the mental health of persons deprived of liberty. According to information obtained by the IACHR, restrictions on prison visits in Colombia also applied to therapists and social workers, which was affecting inmates’ general welfare. The IACHR urges States—as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization have also done—to enable options including videoconferencing, increased telephone communications, and electronic communications when in-person visits are restricted.

In light of all this information and in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission stresses States’ special obligation to take immediate and urgent action to protect the lives, health, and integrity of persons in their custody. In particular, the IACHR urges States to take action to reduce prison populations. The Commission has made various relevant recommendations, mainly in Resolution 01/20, Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas, and in press releases issued on March 31 and June 26. Implementing these measures is particularly urgent considering that the consequences of the pandemic entail particular risks for persons deprived of liberty.

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. 212/20