ISLAMABAD: As Pakistan records its first deaths because of the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities must ensure that necessary measures are taken to protect prisoners, Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) said today.
According to media reports, an inmate at Camp Jail, Lahore has tested positive for COVID-19. The prisoner had been arrested in Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by the disease. After his deportation to Pakistan, he was taken to different barracks of the prison, that houses at least 3,500 inmates. Although he has now been shifted to a medical facility, it is unclear how many other prisoners and prison staff members were inadvertently exposed to the virus.
The nature of the disease mandates preventative steps that are often not available to prisoners, including social distancing. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions mean that preventative steps such as washing hands are harder to follow. Pakistan authorities should consider whether the outbreak qualifies certain prisoners for parole or early release, taking into account their individual circumstances and the risk posed to vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those in poor health. Efforts should be made to release older detainees, who no longer pose a threat to public safety, and there should be a presumption of release for people charged with a criminal offence who are awaiting trial.
The provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab have announced measures such as early release and testing in prisons. These commitments must be followed through and replicated nationwide. Not doing so could place the health of more than 77,000 prisoners in Pakistan at greater risk.
“Prisons in Pakistan face massive overcrowding, overruling the possibility of social distancing, with the potential for a large outbreak. Hygiene supplies remain limited as does healthcare. Pre-trial detainees are taken to courts, where they may be exposed to the virus. Pakistani authorities should seriously consider reducing the prison population,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.
“This is perhaps the greatest health crisis of our time and it is the state’s duty to protect the most vulnerable. Due to the unprecedented rate at which the virus is spreading coupled with its high mortality rate, the Pakistani government must devise a coherent approach to protecting its prison population, currently at over 77,000 individuals. Should the government fail to act now, Pakistani prisons and detention centers will become epicenters for the transmission of COVID-19,” said Sarah Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan.
Access to healthcare
According to international law and standards on conditions of detention, the Pakistani authorities should ensure that all prisoners have prompt access to medical attention and health care. The provision of health care for prisoners is a state responsibility. Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19.
Where a prison service has its own hospital facilities, they must be adequately staffed and equipped to provide prisoners referred to them with appropriate treatment and care. Prisoners who require specialized treatment, not available at the prison facilities, should be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.
Pakistani authorities must also take care to ensure that prison staff and health care workers have access to adequate information, equipment, training and support to protect themselves.
“Conditions in prisons in Pakistan put even the healthiest detainees at risk of infectious diseases. COVID-19 will spread like fire in a prison and will not be easily doused. Not providing appropriate medical treatment to prisoners that could reasonably be expected of the state may amount to ill-treatment,” said Rimmel Mohydin.
Higher risk to prisoners
Pakistan’s prisons suffer from severe overcrowding. Currently, prisons are at 130 percent occupation rate, with poor ventilation, insufficient beds and limited access to medicines, hygiene and sanitary products. While everyone remains at risk of contracting COVID-19, such detention conditions all but guarantee the spread of the virus.
Families of prisoners have expressed concern about their loved ones being at heightened risk of COVID-19. In Punjab, prison visits have been banned for at least the next two weeks. Salahuddin, nephew of Imdad Ali, a death row prisoner diagnosed with schizophrenia, told JPP that, “We are very anxious about how he will be affected by our absence, and hope that he is protected from becoming even more unwell.”
“Families are understandably worried about the fate of their loved ones who are in prison, especially those who are already unwell. The authorities should demonstrate that they are committed to providing reasonable care for prisoners through early releases, providing appropriate medical treatment, shifting them to hospitals if need be and vigorously testing,” said Rimmel Mohydin.
“We are hopeful that all the provinces are looking at this with the seriousness that this situation warrants to protect not only the prisoners, but also the prison administration and staff, and their families,” said Sarah Belal.
Pakistani authorities must ensure that all people affected by the coronavirus have access to adequate health care, including those detained in prisons.
The right to health is guaranteed under several human rights treaties. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) includes the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” as a part of the right to health. In the context of a spreading epidemic, this includes the obligation on states to ensure that preventive care, goods, services and information are available and accessible to all persons. Under the right to health, health care goods, facilities and services should be available in sufficient quantity within the state; accessible to everyone without discrimination; respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate; and scientifically and medically appropriate and of good quality. To be considered “accessible”, these goods and services must be accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population; within safe physical reach for all sections of the population; and affordable for all. The right also includes the accessibility of health-related information. Says in press release