Prevention and control in prisons

Close to 11 million prisoners worldwide as well as the officers who are charged with ensuring their safe, secure and humane custody must not be forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries should recognize the particular risks which COVID-19 and the virus that causes it poses to confined populations for which physical distancing is not an option.

However, COVID-19 prevention and control measures alone may prove insufficient for many prison systems plagued by overcrowding and other systemic challenges. Without compromising public safety, COVID-19 preparedness in prisons should therefore also include efforts to reduce the number of new admissions and to accelerate the release of selected categories of prisoners.

The extraordinary risk that COVID-19 is posing in prison settings brings back into the spotlight longstanding calls of the United Nations to address prison overcrowding, limit imprisonment to a measure of last resort and – where it is necessary – to fully live up to the duty of care which States assume when depriving individuals of their liberty.

We must ensure that more attention is paid to marginalized segments of our societies who are at particular risk of infection, in particular when they live close together, with a high potential for transmission. Places of deprivation of liberty undoubtedly constitute high-risk environments for those who live and work there.

The virus which causes the disease is highly contagious, and even asymptomatic people can infect others. What further aggravates the risk and potential impact of coronavirus entry into prisons is the health profile of prison populations, which tends to be significantly lower when compared to the general community. This includes a higher prevalence of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and HIV, as well as noncommunicable diseases, such as mental health and drug use disorders. Due to their close interaction with prisoners on a daily basis, officers and health-care professionals working in prisons are equally exposed to an enhanced risk of infection.

Overcrowding in prisons is one of the most fundamental obstacles to providing safe and healthy detention environments in accordance with fundamental human rights.

Health in prisons is public health. The vast majority of people deprived of their liberty will eventually return to their communities. There should be no doubt, therefore, that the scenario of rapidly increasing transmission of COVID-19 within prison systems will have an amplifying effect on the epidemic in the general public.

For these reasons, a COVID-19 control strategy in a community which does not involve the prison scenario will not be sustainable

To mitigate the impacts of this new reality on the prison system, the mechanisms for releasing prisoners will be particularly relevant for people deprived of their liberty for whom COVID-19 presents particular risks (the elderly, prisoners affected by chronic diseases or other health conditions, pregnant women, women with dependent children, prisoners approaching the end of their sentence and convicted of minor crimes).

Certain categories of persons deprived of their liberty are typically excluded from such initiatives, including those convicted of sexual offences, domestic violence and other violent crimes.

is in full compliance with the UN's Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners - Mandela Rules in order to protect people in and out of prison and stresses that concerted and urgent action involving prison administrations and all other relevant sectors of government and society is essential. Preventing an outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons, including taking affirmative measures to reduce the prison population, will be much easier than controlling it when it occurs.

COVID-19: Prevention and Control among People Living in Prison

People in prison should enjoy quality health care that is at least equivalent to that available in the community, and should have access to necessary health-care services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.

How does COVID -19 spread?

People can be infected with the Covid-19 virus by two main routes: by inhaling droplets from a person with Covid-19 who coughs or exhales drops, by touching contaminated objects or surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides up-to-date information on the ways Covid-19 spreads at

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Infection with COVID-19 may be without any symptoms. The most common symptoms are similar to the common cold and include fever, tiredness and dry cough. Some people may begin with other symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, inability to smell or taste, or diarrhoea