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US Government urged to do more to prevent major outbreaks of COVID-19 in detention centres – UN experts

29 May 2020


GENEVA (29 May 2020) – UN human rights experts* today urged the United States Government to reduce the population in places of detention to prevent large outbreaks of COVID-19 and ease the mounting pressure on staff and the penitentiary system as a whole.

“We call on the United States Government to act now. Failure to take timely action may have far-reaching consequences,” they said.

“People in detention throughout the US are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and for many, their pre-existing medical conditions increase the risk of death,” the experts noted. “In these closed, and often overcrowded places, basic protective measures, such as physical distancing and hygiene rules, cannot be observed.

“Those at greatest risk should immediately be identified, taking into account situations of vulnerability, and release measures should be implemented,” the experts said. “Despite some steps at the federal and state levels to reduce the population of people in custody, the Government’s response has been insufficient.

“Minorities, including African-Americans, are disproportionately represented, both among the prison population and among those succumbing to COVID-19. Thus, any failure to effectively mitigate the resulting risk is also an issue of racial discrimination and racial justice of paramount importance,” the independent experts warned.

They called on the authorities to factor in that people belonging to minority groups, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans- and gender-diverse people, and people with disabilities are all more likely to experience COVID-19 related complications, due to underlying health conditions or inadequate access to appropriate routine medical care, which increases the risks in case of infection. The risks and needs of older persons (the fastest growing demographic group in prison) and pregnant women should also be given due consideration.

According to international standards, States should ensure that people in detention have access to the same standard of health care as is available in the community, and that this applies to everyone regardless of citizenship, nationality or migration status.

“The authorities must urgently use readily available alternatives to detention for migrants held in overcrowded and unsanitary administrative centres to counter the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak,” the experts added, urging the US Government to suspend immigration raids, deportations, expulsions or other forms of forced returns.

They reminded the authorities that the pandemic and the declaration of health emergency at federal, state or city level does not mean that human rights can be suspended. “The right to life, the right to health, the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the procedural guarantees protecting the liberty and dignity of the person, can never be derogated from.”

NOTE TO EDITORS: Relevant approaches and recommendations in relation to COVID-19 exposure-related risks in prisons have been formulated by the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee; the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and on the independence of judges and lawyers; the UNODC; and the OHCHR, WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS


* The experts: Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Ahmed Reid (Chair), Ms. Dominique Day, Mr. Michal Balcerzak, Mr. Ricardo A. Sunga III, and Mr. Sabelo Gumedze, Working Group of experts on people of African descent; Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Mr. Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; Ms. Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers; Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.


The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.


UN Human Rights, country page – United States of America


For more information and media requests, please contact Alessandro Marra (+41 22 928 93 21 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]


For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]) and John Newland ([email protected])


Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.


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