8 March 2023

Incorporating People deprived of Liberty in Pandemic Responses

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People deprived of liberty were - and continue to be - disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, due to structural problems as well as governments’ inability to adequately prepare for, and respond to, a pandemic hitting places of detention. While to a degree necessary, some of the measures introduced to limit the spread of COVID-19 in prisons proved disproportionate and ineffective to protect the health and rights of people in detention. These developments highlighted how critical it is to specifically address places of detention in any pandemic prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery effort. Nevertheless, the zero draft of the so-called ‘Pandemic Treaty’, currently negotiated at WHO, does not acknowledge people deprived of liberty as vulnerable subjects, nor places of detention as settings requiring specific attention. This briefing outlines key reasons for addressing the needs of people deprived of liberty in the Pandemic Treaty and provides recommendations for amendments in that sense.

People deprived of Liberty and COVID-19

Over 11.5 million people are incarcerated globally, with drug offences accounting for nearly 20% of the prison population. Prison settings are high-risk environments for the transmission of diseases due to overcrowding, limited access to clean water and inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of healthcare and access to good-quality food, among others. Additionally, members of vulnerable and marginalised groups are overrepresented in prisons. Many of the factors that make these groups more likely to be incarcerated, including poverty, discrimination, and drug use, also mean they tend to carry a disproportionately high burden of disease and ill health, leading to a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if contracting a disease.

This briefing highlights how measures to control the spread of COVID-19  in prisons have largely overlooked the vulnerabilities of the prison population while restricting the enjoyment of the rights of people in detention and worsening their living conditions and access to health. 

Meanwhile, decongestion measures undertaken during the pandemic -critical to reduce overcrowding and thus limit the spread of infectious diseases- have proven to be grossly insufficient, resulting in the realise of only 5.8% of the global prison population, while countries continued imprisoning individuals during the emergency, including for offences directly related to COVID-19.

Furthermore, COVID-19 vaccination programs have too often disregarded the prison population and Staff.  HRI and Penal Reform International’s review revealed -among other findings-  a widespread lack of transparency and information regarding vaccination rates of people living in prison and prison staff, which makes it difficult to monitor access to COVID-19 vaccination and constitutes, in itself, a violation of the right to health.

Finally, HRI’a latest report found that while most countries have lifted the majority of COVID-19  restrictions in the broader community, and appear to be following general guidance on preventing the spread of the virus in closed settings, prisons in some countries continue to implement incredibly restrictive measures years into the pandemic, and in some cases still have highly restrictive measures in place as of Marcg 2023.

This raises questions as to the proportionality and necessity of these measures, as well as their exceptional or temporary nature; and heightens the concern that more restrictive measures introduced during the pandemic are becoming a “new normal” for those in prison. At the same time, while some important adaptations and minor reforms have been adopted to help protect the rights and health of people living in prisons during the pandemic, many settings missed an important opportunity for positive structural changes.


This brief overview of measures adopted to confront COVID-19 in places of detention, and their limitations, confirms the importance of specifically addressing these settings, and the people detained therein, in any PPPR effort; including in national plans.

The Pandemic Treaty is a unique opportunity to ensure domestic authorities comply with their obligations to protect the health and rights of people deprived of liberty ahead of and during the next pandemic, but it currently fails to do so. We thus urge Member States negotiating the Treaty to prioritise this population, including by proposing amendments to the text of the Zero Draft in accordance with HRI’s briefing.

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