Member states of the Council of Europe have been "strongly urged" to "make use of all available alternatives to detention whenever possible and without discrimination" due to the threat posed by COVID-19. The Council's Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, released a statement on 6 April 2020 emphasising that "[c]onvicted] and persons on remand are among those most vulnerable to viral contagion as they are held in a high-risk environment".
Statement from the European Commission for Human Rights regarding safety of prisonershttps://t.co/9F4TujS91e— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 6, 2020
"[I]n general, detention facilities are not adapted to face large-scale epidemics, and the basic protective measures such as social distancing and hygiene rules cannot be observed as easily as outside, exposing prisoners to greater health risks", she says.
"in many European countries the pandemic strikes in a context of overcrowded prisons and poor detention conditions in cramped, collective cells, with unsatisfactory health services, as well as higher rates of infectious and chronic diseases among detainees, such as tuberculosis, diabetes and HIV. Across Europe, a number of contaminations and some COVID 19-related deaths in prison have already been reported," Mijatović explains.
She cites the recent guidelines from the World Health Organization on the treatment of detainees and prisoners in light of the COVID19 outbreak. Mijatović also references the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) that, "the resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty is imperative in situations of overcrowding and even more so in cases of emergency".
The Commissioner stresses that human rights of all detainees, including the most vulnerable, must be taken into account during this time period.
"Any restrictions imposed on detainees should be non-discriminatory, necessary, proportionate, time-limited and transparent", Mijatović says. She notes with concern that tensions in facilities across Europe have been rising and that there have already been protests, in some cases violent, "in reaction to restrictions on visits or other activities".
I call on @coe states to take urgent steps to protect the rights and health of prisoners in Europe during the #COVID19 pandemic, incl. by using all available alternatives to detention and by taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable detainees 👉https://t.co/fRVYgkInbb pic.twitter.com/mTa0g7pXHh— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) April 6, 2020
On 4 April the UK government announced that it will be releasing up to 4,000 prisoners two months early and who were convicted of low level offences such as drug possession.
However, in a response to the announcement released the same day, the Prison Governors Association said that in reality,"following stringent guidelines and risk assessments, the number will be far less".
The PGA explicitly questioned whether the British government's decision "goes far enough" arguing that:
"The decision to tag all early releases seems excessive, when at the normal release date this would not happen. We believe that currently tagging capacity is only around 2,000 and this decision will build in delay when we need to move at pace to make a difference.
We need to create sufficient headroom in our prisons, to reduce cell sharing and develop isolation units to safeguard both staff and prisoners."
Furthermore, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, who remains on remand in Belmarsh prison, reportedly in confined to his cell more than 23 hours a day, will not be released according to the Australian Associated Press (AAP). Assange, "who is being held on remand in Belmarsh prison, will not be temporarily released because he's not serving a custodial sentence and therefore not eligible", the Ministry of Justice told Marty Silk of the AAP.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser recently rejected an emergency bail application made on behalf of Assange, on the basis that she was not convinced he was especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 outbreak and that she believed he posed a flight risk which could not be compensated for by any means at her disposal.