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COVID-19: UNODC makes case for protecting people in prisons

The world is amidst an unprecedented pandemic. With 203 countries and territories affected, the coronavirus infection (COVID-19) is taking a toll on the world’s population with close to 700,000 cases and over 33,000 associated deaths as of Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Ghada Fathi Waly
Ghada Fathi Waly, Director-General/Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

According to figures from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Nigeria has now recorded 131 confirmed cases, including two deaths. Under the leadership of the Presidential Task Force on COVID 19 Response a National COVID19 Multi-Sectoral Pandemic Response Plan has been elaborated and is being continuously adjusted as the pandemic evolves.

As government at federal and state levels ramp up capacities to prevent the further spread of the virus, provide for testing and contact tracing, and expand isolation and treatment facilities, as well as to mitigate the impact of its measures on the indigenous population as well as the economy, there are a number of segments of the society who are particularly vulnerable but have not yet found themselves at the centre of attention.

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One of such groups are people in prisons and in other places of detention. While controlling access might be easier in such environments, once the virus has reached a prison, as it has happened already in other several countries, preventing its further spread is significantly harder. Exercising social distancing in an often-overcrowded space is close to impossible.

Moreover, prison population have a weaker health profile making them particularly vulnerable to communicable diseases such as COVID-19 as shown in a recent study on HIV and AIDS situation, available health services and drug use in Nigeria prisons conducted by the National Agency for Combatting HIV/AIDS and the Nigerian Correctional Service with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This situation puts not only detainees at higher risk, but also people working in prisons.

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The Attorney General’s Office as well as the Nigerian Presidential Committee for the decongestion of the Correctional Centres are presently evaluating multiple options to decongest prisons. Options include to accelerate the release of those convicted (or accused) of minor offences as well as those whose sentence would be completed in the nearer future anyhow.

Moreover, this appears the right moment to test the newly established framework for providing alternatives to detention. At the same time, when if not now is the right time to look at the health services accessible to prisoners.

According to the Nelson Mandela Rules, “The provision of health care for prisoners is a State responsibility. 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.”

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Thus, the deployment of personal protective equipment, basic medical equipment and medicines as well as training for prison health workers as part of the overall effort to respond to the pandemic are of paramount importance.

In order to support countries in their efforts, UNODC has collected a range of tools aimed at preventing and mitigating the spread of COVID19 in prisons which have been developed by various actors in the course of the past weeks and days.

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