UNODC & Tunisia Build Partnership to Curtail the Spread of COVID-19 in Prisons

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Tunis (Tunisia), 8 February 2021— The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a crisis unlike any other in the United Nations’s seventy-five year history. The highly contagious virus poses a myriad of challenges, and among the most worrying are that even asymptomatic carriers can infect others.

In response, governments around the world have mobilized efforts to flatten the curve and control the spread of the virus within the general population; paying particular attention to the vulnerable segments of society. Places characterized by a deprivation of liberty —such as prisons— have become high-risk environments for anyone confined within these walls.

Prisoners —as they live, work, eat and often sleep in close proximity, within strictly restricted areas— are at a high risk of both contracting and transmitting the virus. Public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are increasingly addressing this at-risk group, but there is still work to be done.

The pandemic has brought to light the issue of prison overcrowding — hand-in-hand with that of poor infrastructure and lack of resources. This risky combination is now exacerbating the health-related vulnerabilities experienced by 11 million people in prisons worldwide, and also threatening the health and wellbeing of entire communities.

The solution is clear: without compromising on public safety, COVID-19 preparedness in prisons should also include efforts to reduce the number of new admissions, and to accelerate the release of selected categories of prisoners.

In her remarks on the occasion of Nelson Mandela Day, UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly highlighted the extraordinary risk that COVID-19 has posed in prison settings.

“To overcome the COVID-19 crisis and mitigate future risks, we must improve prison conditions and how prisoners are treated, and address how imprisonment is used,” she expressed.

Heeding her words, Tunisia has risen as an example of taking concrete actions to manage the associated risks and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

At the onset of the pandemic, when the first positive case of COVID-19 was registered in Tunisia, the Ministry of Justice immediately supplied personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfectant items and medical equipment in places of detention. However, the North African nation went one step further by developing internal policies to prevent and control COVID-19 in places of detention, strengthened by broad-reaching awareness raising campaigns. 

As a sign of UNODC’s commitment and support of Tunisia’s efforts in mitigating the risks of COVID-19 in prison settings, the Office —with the generous support of the United Kingdom— has also provided technical guidance on preventing the spread of the virus in prisons. UNODC’s support came in the form of training offerings, protective equipment supply and health care assistance, as of the implementation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (or Nelson Mandela Rules).

On the ground, this assistance translated into one hundred beds and required medical equipment being made available for prisoners with confirmed COVID-19 infections in Oudhna prison in Tunisia. Additionally, UNODC has supplied oxygen concentrators, wheelchairs, protective suits, disinfectants, and easy-to-share print materials on COVID-19 prevention and caring for people who use drugs.

Emphasizing the importance of comprehensive, collaborative, and tailored approach in addressing COVID-19 in prisons, the General Director of the Penitentiary Regions Affairs Unit of Tunisia, Mr. Hichem El Ouni, expressed his gratitude to the implementation partners for their ongoing support.

“We would like to thank UNODC, European Union, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom as well as other partners for their significant support to the Tunisian penitentiary administration during the pandemic and these difficult times,” he said. “We rely a lot on this partnership with the United Nations system to improve conditions in Tunisian prisons.”

A swift and firm response is required to ensure the rights of people deprived of liberty to a  healthy and safe custody. Reducing overcrowding is conducive to the implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules, and also essential to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in prisons.

This crucial goal can only be achieved through pro-active multilateralism. Building synergies, engaging multiple partners active in the pandemic response, and forging partnerships; to ensure that all people —including vulnerable groups— have access to all the tools they need to defeat COVID-19.