Support for prisoners during a pandemic

June 2, 2020


The Interamerican Commission of Human Rights has acknowledged Brazil for its good practices on human rights protection of persons deprived of liberty under the coronavirus pandemic. Among these challenges, a special one is imposed on the prisons and juvenile justice institutions. Under overcrowding and precarious health and hygiene conditions, the entrance of the virus to prison institutions can have a devastating human impact.

Considering the necessity of establishing procedures for reducing epidemiological risks and preserving the health and the life of public agents, persons deprived of liberty and their families, the judiciary power in Brazil, with UNDP support has issued guidelines on preventive measures to avoid massive dissemination of COVID-19 in the penal and juvenile justice systems.

Physical distancing

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one way of protecting yourself from spreading COVID-19 is maintaining at least one metre distance from others. But can people deprived of their liberty afford to do such a thing? With more than 750,000 convicts, the Brazilian prison system operates 70 percent above capacity and faces sanitary and hygiene difficulties.

They include measures to orient the action of judges all over the country. Under this unprecedented health crisis, the document aims at supporting magistrates to be better equipped to promote the necessary actions to face the pandemic, at the same time as observing the country's legal framework and fulfilling human rights protection principles.

It is recommended judges carefully analyze provisional detention measures, especially those imposed to pregnant and nursing women; mothers or persons responsible for children under 12 or people with disabilities; as well as elderly and others with critical vulnerabilities. It also recommends, under the conditions of the law, the revision of preventive arrests that are not related to violent crimes. The impact of these recommendations are crucial at this moment to reduce overcrowding in prisons. According to official data, Brazil has the world’s third highest prison population and 40 percent of those incarcerated are detained under provisional arrests.

Meeting the urgency of the situation
The President of the Council, Minister Dias Toffoli, says that the measure meets the urgency and unusualness of the situation, with parameters that can be replicated across the country. “We are facing a pandemic with effects still unknown. It is imperative that the Judiciary does not omit itself and adopt a quick and uniform response, avoiding irreparable damage," he says.

So far, near 30,000 prisoners have been released with no reduction in public security. Temporary prisoners, who have not been convicted, and those accused of non-violent crimes are the main beneficiaries.
According to the National Penitentiary Department, lethality rate of COVID-19 among prisoners is 3.25 percent. Up to now, there have been 1,383 confirmed cases and 45 deaths. Only 5,384 prisoners were tested.

Coronavirus guidelines

The guidelines also give guidance on procedures to be applied in suspect or confirmed cases of coronavirus in prison institutions, that include health support and communication of the case to the responsible judge, for the evaluation of the possibility of applying home isolation measures, in scenarios where spaces for adequate health isolation are not available in the prison. Concerning visits, the provision of alternative measures to guarantee the virtual contact with families and compensate situations where isolation is necessary is also advised.

The partnership between UNDP Brazil and the National Council of Justice also includes activities to foster the socio-economic integration of persons living in the prison system. These activities include a multidimensional methodology to provide psychosocial and legal assistance to labour inclusion and other income generating opportunities, offered in spaces called Social Offices.

In a crisis, the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. And UNDP is committed to supporting measures targeted to these populations, leaving no one behind.