Authorities must consider alternatives to detention during Covid-19 pandemic
31 March 2020
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lawyers for Liberty urges the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Prisons Department and the Attorney-General’s Chambers to take all necessary action to protect people in detention facilities and those who come into contact with them.
The rights to life and health are fundamental human rights to be enjoyed by every person, without discrimination. However detention facilities, including police lock-ups, prisons, youth rehabilitation and immigration detention centres, can be breeding grounds for infection and disease even in normal circumstances.
With the spread of Covid-19, conditions associated with detention, such as overcrowding, confinement in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces and poor sanitation, create even greater risks. People held in such conditions cannot follow basic, and potentially life-saving, advice to practice physical distancing and self-isolation. This presents a risk, not just to detainees who may be quickly infected in cramped conditions, but also to staff and healthcare workers, and therefore the public health at large.
Detention centres, lock-ups and prisons need to do all they can to stem the spread of the disease and ensure that all detainees and staff have access to good medical care and hospitals when required. The authorities must reduce capacity so that they can limit the risk of mass infections and safely isolate those who have tested positive for Covid-19.
Consideration should be given to new measures, including supervised early release, for the most vulnerable and at-risk detainees, such as older detainees and those who are sick. Those who are close to the end of their sentences as well as low-risk offenders should also be considered. A number of countries have already started to release prisoners and other detainees, including some states in the USA, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has encouraged other affected countries to consider doing the same.
The authorities must, of course, balance the security risks of releasing prisoners and other detainees against the protection of the public and ensure that only suitable persons are considered for release.
The Prisons Department is already well-practised in monitoring the risks of supervised release, through the parole system which was introduced in 2008. The system of parole has alleviated overcrowding, while also reducing re-offending and facilitating the safe rehabilitation of offenders back into society. Consideration should be given to adapting existing schemes such as this to cope with the current situation.
Lawyers for Liberty further urges the authorities not to arrest and remand people unnecessarily, particularly for minor infringements of the Movement Control Order. We view the arrest and, in some cases, remand of individuals in recent examples as excessive, including people caught jogging, playing sports or hanging around in public. Detention in such circumstances unnecessarily endangers them and others in detention.
While law and order must be maintained, arrest and further remand should be the last resort as these measures may not be the necessary and proportionate means of enforcement, particularly for minor offences where detention can intensify the public health risks we already face.
Refugees and undocumented migrants held in immigration detention centres should also be considered for release. Immigration arrests and raids should be stopped at this time, as it is crucial that everyone, regardless of their legal status, feels safe and able to come forward for testing and treatment if they are exposed to Covid-19, and to go on with their daily lives while adhering to the advice of the Ministry of Health in this very challenging time.
Lawyers for Liberty