including human rights defenders, were excluded from COVID-19-related releases,” said Netsanet Belay.

Health crisis

COVID-19 has also laid bare the years of underinvestment in, and neglect of, health services in prisons. Prison authorities have been unable or unwilling to cope with the increased need for preventive health measures and medical services for prisoners. During the early phases of the pandemic, Amnesty International found prisoners in many countries were unable to get a COVID-19 test due to acute shortages, while some detainees in Iran and Turkey were arbitrarily denied medical treatment.

Countries including Cambodia, France, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Togo and the USA were also unable to put in place adequate preventive and protective measures in prisons to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“No matter who you are, or where you are, people deserve access to face masks, adequate quantities of soap, sanitizing items and clean running water,” said Netsanet Belay. “In prisons, especially, personal protective equipment needs to be provided free of charge and governments need to increase access to COVID-19 testing and treatments to prevent and manage potential outbreaks.”

Control measures resulting in abuses

In many countries, prison authorities have resorted to dangerous measures including excessive and abusive confinement and quarantining measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, leading to serious human rights violations. In some places such as Argentina and the UK, detainees were put in isolation for up to 23 hours per day, often for weeks or months.

“Excessive and abusive isolation and quarantine measures were used to contain the spread of COVID-19 in some prisons around the world. In some cases, these could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Humane measures to protect prisoners must be put in place now,” said Netsanet Belay.

Some COVID-19-related lockdown measures in prisons also impacted family visits, increasing the risks to detainees’ mental and physical wellbeing. In some instances, these sparked widespread protests and unrest in prisons, to which authorities often responded with excessive force.

“While some prison authorities have retained visits by adapting conditions, others have resorted to banning visitors, effectively depriving detainees from their lifeline to the outside world and undermining their emotional and physical wellbeing,” said Netsanet Belay.

Prioritizing vaccination of people in detention

At least 71 countries have now put in place a vaccination policy for at least one clinically vulnerable group. While some of these countries have included prison populations and staff among the priority groups to receive vaccines, Amnesty International’s research found that many othersincluding higher-income countries, are either silent or remain unclear on their plans.

“Prisons are some of the most at-risk settings for COVID-19 outbreaks and we cannot neglect the right to health of people in prisons any longer. Lack of clarity about vaccination plans, policies and treatment of incarcerated populations is a pressing, global concern,” said Netsanet Belay. “As vaccine roll-out strategies take shape, a failure to prioritize the health of people in detention will have catastrophic consequences for prisoners, their families and the public health care system.”

Amnesty International is calling on states not to discriminate against those held in detention when developing vaccination policies and plans. Furthermore, it urges states to make every effort to prioritize prisoners in their national vaccination plans, particularly given that their confined conditions do not allow them to physically distance, and ensure that those at particularly high risk of COVID-19 (such as older prisoners and those with chronic health conditions) are prioritized for vaccination on a par with comparative groups in the general population.