Covid-19: Correcting Corona


Much has been written in recent months about the threats posed by the Covid-19 crisis to the human rights of people in contact with the law, and in particular those who are incarcerated. Less, perhaps, is known about how an approach to corrections based on the international human rights framework serves to address such threats before they have developed.

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute has for many years worked around the world to promote increased compliance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or Mandela Rules, and other relevant international human rights standards for corrections. The purpose of these standards, which cover all aspects of correctional service management, is to put in place systems that reduce the likelihood of human rights abuses occurring, rather than waiting to react to violations after the fact.

The Mandela Rules

The Covid-19 crisis has served to highlight this, with one of the most obvious examples being the detailed health-care standards in the Mandela Rules, which include the requirement for medical professionals to thoroughly examine every prisoner as soon as possible following his or her admission, with particular attention paid to, inter alia, providing for the clinical isolation and adequate treatment of prisoners suspected of having contagious diseases.

The principle of medical examinations on admission is widely known amongst correctional officers but, in reality, prison systems frequently fail to meet this standard, with examinations taking place well after admission to the general population – if at all.

Even when carried out, examinations are often inadequate to detect potential contagion, sometimes consisting of little more than an interview by a non-medical professional.  In many countries, it is not even possible to enter a supermarket at present without a temperature check, so why would this not always be standard practice for prisons?

Here in Kenya, where we have enjoyed a longstanding cooperation with the correctional services, supported by Swedish Development Cooperation, many institutions which had already improved examination and quarantine procedures in response to human rights training are, for now, being spared the worst of the disease.

Contact with the outside world is another case in point, with widespread restrictions on prison visits in a bid to prevent the virus from entering.

The Mandela Rules include a strong focus on the importance of ongoing relations with family, in particular, as essential to the prospects of surviving life in prison, and eventually reintegrating into the community. While temporary suspension of visiting may be necessary to limit the spread of the virus, a recent update to the Rules expanded potential types of contact to include, where available, phone calls and other electronic means, which are often lacking particularly in developing countries.

Again, institutions which had established such systems have been able to maintain an important degree of contact for prisoners during the crisis – and potentially also thereby avoid some of the rioting that has taken place in prisons across the world, in which visiting restrictions have frequently been cited as a trigger.

Another major factor behind the riots has been the fear that cramped and overcrowded conditions will aid the spread of Covid-19, with many systems taking remedial action by mass releases of prisoners, typically those convicted of petty crimes or otherwise close to the end of a sentence.

While largely welcome, such emergency measures are no substitute for the development of proper systems of parole and other forms of conditional release, informed by rigorous approaches to prisoner risk assessment and classification, which sit at the heart of the Mandela Rules and should, in theory, inform all decision-making about an individual offender.

There are, undoubtedly, large numbers of prisoners around the world who have failed to qualify for early release measures by virtue of their sentence, and yet could have long since been cleared to serve out the remainder of their sentences in the community, with little or no threat to society.  Once again, correctional systems which have observed the human rights standards in these respects have fewer problems with overcrowding, and much more reliable information on who can be safely released.

At the front end of the corrections chain, the human rights standards emphasise the requirement for incarceration only when strictly necessary, and the importance of developing and prioritising alternatives to imprisonment.

Again here in Kenya, it has been heartening to hear from our partners in the judiciary, with whom we have been working closely on improving effective use of non-custodial measures, that some jurisdictions are reporting an increased use of probation orders, fines, discharges and warnings instead of prison sentences in response to the crisis, helping to alleviate overcrowding and again informed by proper risk assessment.

These are just a few examples of ways in which adherence to the international human rights framework provides a preventive mechanism for corrections in such times of crisis, and there are numerous others, ranging from rules on transport and accommodation standards to those on staff training and equipment. The bigger question, however, concerns what happens next.

Once the current emergency is over, will systems and institutions which have rushed to implement medical checks and family calls, to reduce prison populations and implement alternatives, simply revert to their old ways?

Or will we be able to take something positive out of this situation, with increased recognition by correctional systems of the benefits that compliance with human rights standards bring to the safety of their clients, their staff and the wider community?  Some day, we can only hope before too long, the Covid-19 crisis will be over.  The global corrections crisis, however, we can be sure will continue.

Best regards,

Josh Ounsted
Director of Regional Office in Nairobi

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts – read more here