Ghada Waly

Director-General/Executive Director


14th UN Crime Congress special event on the impact of Covid-19 in prison settings: mitigating risks and building back better

   10 March 2021

Statement delivered on behalf of the Executive Director


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Nelson Mandela Rules for the treatment of prisoners represent a crowning achievement of the UN Crime Congresses.

In 1955, the first UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, as the Crime Congress was called at the time, adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is proud to be the custodian of these landmark, universally recognized standards, renamed in honour of Nelson Mandela after their revision in 2015. In partnership with you, our Office has promoted the practical application of the Rules to improve the humane treatment of prisoners and their reintegration into our societies around the world.

Last year, we marked the fifth anniversary of the Nelson Mandela Rules in the shadow of the global COVID-19 crisis, which has made tragically clear that action to address prison conditions is needed now more than ever. Prisoners and prison staff have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and prison settings continue to be at severe risk of catastrophic outbreaks of the virus.

Over-incarceration, overcrowding, poor prison conditions and a lack of resources endanger the safety and health of 11 million people in prisons and of those working in prisons, and they represent a serious threat to all communities outside.

The majority of Member States continue to deal with acute issues of overcrowding, with more than 50 countries operating prisons at more than 150 percent of actual capacity, compromising not only the quality of nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, but also health, safety and the care for vulnerable groups.

The resulting pressures for both prisoners and prison officers fuel conflict and violence, undermining efforts to ensure a safe, secure and humane prison environment. Protests, riots and other incidents in prisons have erupted in over 50 countries during the COVID-19 crisis.

UNODC has responded quickly to Member States’ requests for support to deal with these risks. Along with UN system partners, including WHO, OHCHR and UNAIDS, we have issued policy alerts and guidance on addressing the dangers of an explosive outbreak of the virus in prisons. Our Office is currently helping more than 50 countries with training, personal protective equipment and health care assistance.

We also welcome efforts by many countries to reduce the size of prison populations as part of their COVID response. According to preliminary information, close to 700,000 prisoners have been authorized for release worldwide, with a typical focus on those who are especially at risk from the virus, who are approaching the end of their sentences, or whose release would not imperil public safety.  

As Member States take such measures to tackle acute pandemic threats, let us also take this opportunity to rethink how imprisonment is used, and to increase the focus on crime prevention and non-custodial measures, for the longer term and for the benefit of all our societies.

In this regard, I am pleased to inform you that the UN system is mobilizing its efforts around a forthcoming UN common position on incarceration, with UNODC taking the lead together with the UN Division for Peace Operations and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Guided by this common position, the UN will focus on providing integrated assistance to Member States to rationalize the use and scope of imprisonment; improve prison conditions and strengthen prison management; and advance the rehabilitation and social reintegration of offenders.

The practical application of the Nelson Mandela Rules, as well as the Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners and the Tokyo Rules on non-custodial measures, will save resources, protect human rights and reduce re-offending upon release.

Looking ahead, UNODC will continue to work towards expanding our Global Programme on Addressing Prison Challenges and our significant portfolio of field-based prison reform projects in all regions.

We will also seek to advance the use of alternatives to imprisonment, including by building the capacities of probation services and other criminal justice entities in charge of non-custodial measures, and we will support Member States to improve case management and the efficiency of criminal proceedings in order to reduce backlogs and hearing delays.

These are essential steps to relieve prisons and corrections services from the pressures of overcrowding and from an over-reliance on incarceration.

Furthermore, prison and penal reform will be a priority of our regional initiatives, including UNODC’s Strategic Vision for Africa 2020 to 2030.

We count on the support of all Member States for this work, which we will pursue in partnership with you, with UN and regional organizations, and with civil society.

Together, we can honour the legacy of the Crime Congresses, as well as the memory of Nelson Mandela, and devote greater attention and care to the plight of prisoners and to offender management as part of our collective commitment to truly leave no one behind and strive for the dignity of all.

Thank you.