Bangladesh: Focusing on mental health, UNODC trains prison staff on crisis management during COVID-19


Dhaka, Bangladesh/19 April 2022: Globally, more than 11 million people remain in pre-trial detention or imprisonment, and overcrowding in prisons remains a persistent challenge for countries. Individuals confined in prison settings, where physical distancing is often not an option, have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. This vulnerability is aggravated by the weaker health profile of prison populations, poor prison conditions and prison overcrowding, which continues to affect a majority of countries worldwide. These also pose a risk to the physical and mental well-being of prison staff, officials and healthcare professionals, who operate in close proximity with prisoners on a daily basis.

Responding to this challenge, UNODC handed over personal protective equipment and health supplies to the Prisons Directorate, Bangladesh to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 risks for over 11,149 prisoners. A series of eight trainings on COVID-19 crisis management and its psychosocial impact was also convened for over 232 prison staff from Bangladesh prisons between January-April 2022, in collaboration with the Prisons Directorate, Government of Bangladesh.

Supported by the generous funding from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), these intensive trainings focused on supporting the Government of Bangladesh in strengthening the country’s health systems to prevent, protect, control and mitigate the risks of COVID-19 and other communicable and non-communicable diseases in prisons. Participants acknowledged the need for a comprehensive programme to help prison population effectively manage the pandemic.

Welcoming the initiative, the Inspector General of Prisons, Bangladesh said in his inaugural address that “the practical application of the trainings would assist the prison system to manage the COVID-19 pandemic well in Bangladesh.” In the discussions, participants advocated for a mechanism to enable the appointment of psychologists and correction officers in prisons to address mental and psychological issues. One of the participants-- a pharmacist by training--said that the mental health of inmates often do not get the required attention, and called for regular mental health refresher trainings to support prison officials and inmates.

In Bangladesh, the prison system contained the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic among inmates and staff, due to adoption of timely preventive, protective and control measures—such as introducing virtual court hearings and execution of safety measures such as usage of masks, physical distancing and sanitization. However, certain measures such as restricted family visits, reduced interaction among prisoners and delays in legal proceedings also affected the overall mental health of the prison population during the pandemic.

Addressing these vulnerabilities, requires immediate steps. These include sensitization of the prison community on mental health issues, fostering an enabling environment in prisons on mental health, advocacy to include a mental health component in prison training programs, preparing prisoners on psychosocial coping skills, and strengthening systemic protection in prisons.

Under its ongoing project, “Support to COVID-19 Infection Management for People in Prison and Persons with Drug Use Disorders in Bangladesh,” UNODC has been working towards equipping the prison system with tools and strategies to effectively counter public health emergencies such as COVID-19, and enhancing capacities of prison staff, officials and inmates to support pandemic preparedness and necessary health responses.

This is also in line with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), which emphasizes, “Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are 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.”

(Supported by the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs)