The Hidden Victims of COVID-19

No one is exempt from the effects of the COVID19 pandemic; everyone has had to make their sacrifices, however big or small. However, some members of society have been hit especially hard during this global pandemic. We have heard the stories of the traditional risk groups, yet the media has largely ignored the situation of persons who are deprived of liberty: those held in detention centres, prisons or correctional facilities.  In these situations, the pandemic has hit especially hard, but often with less help from the state. For example, in the US federal and state prisons COVID19 cases are 5.5 times higher and the death rate is 3 times higher than that of the rest of the country. Correctional institutions are one of the five largest clusters of the COVID19 crisis.

In an already fragile and sensitive environment, the effects of the confinement measures are amplified. While celebrities can complain about quarantining from inside their multi-million dollar mansions, prisoners and detainees have to make social distancing work within jails cells that are barely two metres across. Isolation, social distancing, diagnosis and testing are nearly impossible in a prison situation. The lack of supplies, funding and resources allow the virus to spread even more rapidly. Witness accounts and reports, provided by Human Rights Watch, from prisoners in Egypt tell us that prison authorities do no contact tracing, give no protection to people at higher risks and even put more than one prisoner that show COVID19 symptoms in one jail cell. Due to pre-existing poor hygienic measures, prisoners are also more likely to have higher incidences of chronic and infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and diabetes.

Along with the increased risk of infection, prisoners must deal with the lockdown measures adopted by many countries. Due to these measures, prisoner’s visitation rights, including rights of visitation from a lawyer, are cut short. That lack of contact to any support system can have severe impacts on mental health. Only 25 countries worldwide have implemented compensation measures, such as phone calls, video-visits, etc. Furthermore, the lack of legal representation and visitation can act as an allowance for an increase in human rights violations inside the prison as a result of the lack of oversight. 

The neglect and betrayal that prisoners feel is now boiling over, leading to riots, violence and protests worldwide out of sheer desperation and fear of COVID19. In Chile, prisoners in the Angol and Temuco jail have been on hunger strike, now refusing to take fluids as well. Already on March 23rd, 23 prisoners died and 83 were injured due to a riot in Bogoto, one of 13 disturbances in Columbia.

These issues have existed long before the pandemic hit, COVID19 has just revealed the built-in flaws and faults of the detention system worldwide. It has acted as a catalyst that has brought an already failing system to its breaking point. Overcrowding is one of the flaws in detention centres that has quickly become fatal. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, arguably the country with the worst overcrowding, prisons are filled at 432%. This overcrowding creates an inability to self-isolate, social distance and quarantine. Furthermore, the shocking truth is that in most prisons pre-trial detainees, people detained before a trial has begun, are the most common prisoner. These figures range from pre-trial detainees making up 90% of the detention population in Libya, to 25% in the UK. This means that people who have not even been found guilty are put at risk by staying in highly infectious and volatile jail environments. 

Prison health is public health, prisons are not a closed system and the spread of the virus in prisons will eventually spread outside due to the movement of prison staff, health care workers and others. The lack of soap and personal protective equipment in prisons causing prisoners to often wear their socks as gloves to protect themselves from germs, shows the basic neglect that prisoners experience. Society often sees prisoners as a separate section of society, discriminating, stereotyping, and prejudicing against them. However, prisoners whether violent or non-violent, should not be punished for their crimes by catching a deadly disease that will have long-term health effects.

Johanna Wassong

The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.


COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons Significantly Higher Than in U.S. Population” – John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Coronavirus VIII: Prisons & Jails: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) Youtube

Egypt: Apparent Covid-19 Outbreaks in Prisons”Human Rights Watch

“COVID-19 pandemic: urgent steps are needed to protect the rights of prisoners in Europe” Council of Europe

COVID-19 Pandemic Response: Fighting the invisible threat in prisons” Council of Europe

“Coronavirus: At least 23 killed in Columbia prison unrest”BBC News

“Chile: We urge the Chilean Authorities to engage in a dialogue with the Mapuche prisoners in dry strike” OMCT

“Overcrowded DRC prisons ‘ticking time-bomb’ for COVID-19 pandemic” Al Jazeera 

Highest to Lowest – Pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners World Prison Brief

“‘We’re left for Dead’: Fears of Virus Catastrophe at Rikers Jail”New York Times

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