COVID-19 in prisons—a ticking time bomb

With more than 11 million people in custody worldwide, and 30 million people entering and leaving detention every year, the threat of COVID-19 for people in prisons is very real. In the vast majority of the world’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons and detention centres, physical distancing is simply not an option. In situations where close confinement, shared facilities and spaces and poor hygiene are commonplace, inmates and prison staff are living in constant fear of the ticking COVID-19 time bomb.

UNAIDS, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are calling on leaders to make detention a last resort, to close drug rehabilitation detention centres and to decriminalize sex work, same-sex sexual relations and drug use. They are urging countries to release the people who can be released and to consider people at risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions. Other people, including people sentenced for minor, non-violent offences, pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding and children, should also be considered for release.

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