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Press briefing notes Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Press briefing note on Americas / Prison conditions

05 May 2020

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Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville

Location: Geneva

Date: 5 May 2020

Subject: COVID-19: Americas / prison conditions

Conditions in many prisons in the Americas region are deeply worrying. Pre-existing structural problems, such as chronic overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, coupled with the lack of proper access to healthcare have enabled the rapid spread of COVID-19 in many facilities.

Thousands of inmates and prison officials have already been infected across North and South America. In many countries, the increasing fear of contagion and lack of basic services -- such as the regular provision of food due to the prohibition of family visits -- have triggered protests and riots.

Some of these incidents in detention centres have turned extremely violent. The latest happened on 1 May, in Los Llanos penitentiary in Venezuela, where a revolt by prisoners reportedly resulted in 47 inmates losing their lives. Four days earlier, on 27 April, a riot broke out in the Miguel Castro Castro prison in Peru leaving nine inmates dead. On 21 March, 23 inmates died after security forces intervened to supress rioting in La Modelo prison in Colombia. Other incidents, including attempts to escape, have been registered in detention centres in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, Mexico and the U.S.

The scale and gravity of the incidents mentioned above seem to indicate that in some cases states have not taken appropriate measures to prevent violence in detention facilities, and that state agents may have committed use of force violations in attempts to re-gain control of these facilities. We remind authorities that the use of force must strictly comply with the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination, and that States have the duty to protect inmates’ physical and mental health and well-being, as set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules).

We call on States to conduct thorough, prompt, independent and impartial investigations into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries during riots, including any allegation of use of force violations by state agents.

We have also seen with concern how some States have routinely detained people for allegedly violating mandatory quarantines, thereby increasing the risk of infection.

In El Salvador, extremely harsh security measures were recently imposed in prisons, which could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and could also exacerbate the already precarious hygiene conditions.

We call on States to take appropriate measures to prevent further spread of the virus by ensuring sanitary conditions, widespread access to testing and access to necessary healthcare for detainees, as well as personal protective equipment and testing for prison personnel. Authorities should guarantee a minimum level of personal contacts with family members and proper access to food and drinkable water, as well as providing regular and transparent information about the impact of the disease on prisoners and staff. Conditions in detention centres and prisons, and the treatment of detainees should be regularly monitored by independent bodies, and prisoners who fall ill should be placed in non-punitive isolation or quarantine in facilities where they can receive appropriate medical care.

We welcome measures taken by some States to release those most vulnerable to COVID-19, including people with underlying medical conditions, pregnant women, older people, people living with HIV, as well as people with disabilities. However, broader measures are needed to reduce the extreme levels of overcrowding by releasing other categories of prisoners serving short sentences for non-violent crimes, as well as children held in detention and people detained for immigration offences.

In doing so, it is essential that States ensure that those measures do not contribute to impunity for violent crimes. People convicted of crimes recognised under international law after a fair and public trial by an independent and impartial tribunal should be considered for temporary release from custody only under exceptional circumstances.

In the context of the pandemic, it is urgent to reduce the use of pre-trial detention – a measure that should always be exceptional, but has been chronically over-used in the Americas. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Interim Guidance on COVID-19 and persons deprived of their liberty offers practical suggestions to States wishing to implement measures to reduce overcrowding in places of detention.

People detained arbitrarily, without sufficient legal basis, or for crimes that are incompatible with international law, as well as all those incarcerated for exercising their human rights, including expression of dissenting opinions, should also be released.

Authorities should ensure that people who have been released receive proper health care.


For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]or Jeremy Laurence - + 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected]orLiz Throssell- + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected] or Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]

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