COVID-19 Pandemic and Urgent Measures in Prisons
20 March 2020
Coronavirus (COVID-19) that appears to have first emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has spread to 146 countries in a short period of time and has been described as a global outbreak (pandemic) by the World Health Organization. Turkey’s Minister of Health, Fahrettin Koca, has also stated that the first coronavirus case in the country was diagnosed on 11 March 2020. Following the first case many public and private enterprises have started taking measures against the pandemic, notably the government.
Prisons are closed penitentiary institutions with little personal space and hygiene. Dense and mobile population, material conditions and organization of prisons provide a quite favorable medium for the spread of such communicable diseases.
According to data provided by the Ministry of Justice, there are 294,000 prisoners in 355 prisons in Turkey as of January 2020. Among these prisoners about 11,000 are stated to be women but no figure was offered as to whether how many of them were convicted and non-convicted. While there are 3,100 child prisoners, 780 children are kept in prisons with their mothers. It can thus be deduced that there are about 66,000 prisoners on top of enhanced capacity in prisons which, in turn, leads to further deterioration in the material conditions of prisons and a significant raise in deprivation of rights.
According to İHD’s 2019 data, there are a total of 1,333 sick prisoners in Turkish prisons including 457 in critical condition. Yet the number of current sick prisoners is way above this figure. Critically sick prisoners who cannot live on their own and are not treated under healthy conditions face gross violations of the right to life.
The number of prisoners on remand, meaning those whose sentences have not been upheld yet, has not been released by the authorities for a long time now. Another important datum is the rate of annual prison turnover, in other words, the number of people incarcerated and released in a year. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s data, 266,889 persons were admitted to prisons in 2018 while during the same period 215,170 persons were released. Such high circulation reveals the fact that the number of prisoners is in fact much higher than it seems. It does not sound quite possible to protect prisoners from the COVID-19 pandemic under such circumstances.
Overcapacity in Turkish prisons leads to further deterioration in the material conditions of these prisons and poses a significant health risk. The degree to which the spread of virus in these closed institutions may create serious problems can readily be seen in Italian and Iranian prisons. Related public institutions and bodies should take all the necessary measures in prisons taking into consideration the fact that the health risks faced by prisoners and prison staff, relatives of prisoners and lawyers are a public health problem.
We would also like to state that the measures to be taken in prisons as announced by the Ministry of Justice are insufficient.
We, the co-signees of this statement, would like to underline the fact that necessary measures should be taken in prisons while these measures necessarily need to be in line with the dignity of the human person without leading to any rights violations and the following points should be taken into account when planning for a response to the current pandemic in prisons:
- All the critically sick prisoners should immediately be released, the enforcement of their sentences should be delayed as they are in the serious risk group for communicable disease outbreaks, non-convicted ones should be released;
- Prisoners older than 60 years of age should be released as a precaution and the enforcement of their sentences should be delayed, non-convicted ones should be released taking into account the fatal effect of the virus particularly on the elderly;
- Pregnant prisoners and those with children should be released and the enforcement of their sentences should be delayed in compliance with the principle of best interests of the child,
- All child prisoners should immediately be released;
- Political prisoners charged with offences under the Anti-Terror Code (such as deputies, co-mayors, city council and general provincial assembly members, lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, intellectuals and authors, activists, trade unionists, students) should immediately be released;
- Works on the bill on amendments to the enforcement of sentences recently on the public agenda should take into account the principle of equality in the enforcement of sentences, sentence terms should be shortened and the bill should immediately be passed into law having regard to the aggrievement of disadvantaged prisoner groups;
- All prisoners’ legal status should be reviewed over their files to enable their immediate release based on the rule that detention is an exception;
- We urge authorities to drop disciplinary action (like conditional release terms, right to visitation, right to referral) that leads to prisoners’ violation of rights;
- Healthcare professionals have all been underlining the significance of personal hygiene to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Therefore personal hygiene and cleaning material should immediately be supplied to prisoners free of charge in order to protect prisoners’ health, to clean their environment and maintain personal hygiene. It is indeed the main responsibility of the prison management and the state to take the necessary measures to maintain environmental and personal hygiene paying utmost care to prevent the spread of the disease.
- Common spaces like baths and restrooms in prisons should be disinfected daily;
- Prisoners should be provided with adequate, balanced and healthy diets along with vitamin supplements;
- Prisoners with chronic conditions; elderly, disabled, pregnant prisoners and those with children who are in the risk group with insufficient resources to maintain their personal health should be kept in places with appropriate capacity and hygiene until the enforcement of their sentence terms are delayed through judicial control;
- All prison staff should be informed taking into account recommendations and warnings issued by the Ministry of Health and the Turkish Medical Association; measures to be taken and rules to be followed should be identified; prison staff should share information considering the restriction on prisoners’ access to communication; each prisoner should be granted the right to communication by telephone at least twice a week;
- Persons entering the prison should be informed about hygiene rules and measures to be taken to prevent spread; appropriate conditions and protective equipment should be provided along with such measures in case of contact with prisoners;
- All staff, notably health care workers, who have contact with prisoners should be provided with protective clothing and equipment; necessary measures should be taken so as to cover work conditions for all prison staff particularly for those in the risk group;
- Availability of regular and sufficient number of health care staff should be provided in prisons (their number should be increased);
- Necessary measures should be taken to secure rapid and safe testing of all prisoners, prison staff and relatives of prisoners who present possible symptoms;
- Further measures should be rapidly taken in visitation spaces in a manner so as not to violate prisoners’ right to visitation and these spaces should often be disinfected; more opportunities should be provided so that prisoners can communicate with their loved ones;
- Necessary measures should be taken to offer appropriate and sufficient health care services to prisoners in hospitals close to prisons and other health care institutions providing health care services to prisoners;
- Prisoners should be transferred to health care institutions and hospitals in more hygienic and healthy vehicles rather than patrol wagons;
- Authorities should be attentive to ensure that the health care measures to be taken be implemented in a manner so as not to violate the fundamental rights of prisoners;
- It is imperative that the public, particularly the relatives and attorneys of prisoners be regularly informed about the measures taken/to be taken about the coronavirus outbreak, quarantine and prisoners health conditions.
Human Rights Association (İHD) / Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT)
Lawyers for Freedom Association (ÖHD) / Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD)
Trade Union of Employees in Health Care and Social Services (SES)
Civil Society in the Penal System (CİSST)