COVID-19: the conditions in prisons pose a serious challenge to human rights

The current virus outbreak cannot be used as an excuse to worsen the human rights situation in detention facilities around the world, said Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee on Monday.

Members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights held a debate on Monday with experts on how the pandemic is affecting people in places of detention, such as prisons, which are often seriously overcrowded, with low sanitary and poor hygiene standards in many countries across the world.

Legal obligations must be upheld

Most MEPs and experts highlighted that the virus outbreak has in many cases led to prison authorities worldwide putting in place draconian measures, such as severely restricting visiting hours and quarantine schemes resembling indefinite solitary confinement. This has already caused deadly prison riots in many countries, and risks making living conditions even worse, in an environment already prone to violence and abuse.

They called on both national and United Nations bodies to continue to strengthen their important oversight and monitoring work, to ensure that legal obligations and norms are upheld by the relevant penal authorities.

Many MEPs also criticised prisoner release schemes being used in many places to address overcrowding, when these do not include political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, as is the case in many countries outside the EU. Members described this situation as unacceptable, given that the latter inmates pose less of a threat to the community than some of the other detainees being released.

Some of the speakers finally stressed the need to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reflect more broadly on penal system reforms and rethink, for example, which kinds of crimes actually merit lengthy jail sentences, how to devise alternatives to detention and formulate better policies as regards rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

All guest speakers underlined the European Parliament’s crucial role as a watchdog when it comes to keeping all these issues high on the political agenda.

Watch the debate

You can watch the debate again here (11.05.2020). See the full list of invited speakers.

Ms Leicht was replaced by Mr Philippe Dam, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia at the Human Rights Watch Brussels Office. Mr Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen detained in Iran, also addressed the subcommittee.


In the context of the pandemic, places of detention around the world, such as prisons, are of great concern due to the primary public health challenge that they pose and the secondary impact that stricter confinement rules may have as a response to the virus outbreak. Inmates with pre-existing health conditions serving longer sentences in overcrowded facilities run particularly high risks of being infected by COVID-19.

Some countries have responded to the crisis through large-scale prisoner releases, favouring alternative forms of detention and allowing for more online and telephone contact with family members and lawyers. In many cases, however, the new measures have not been applied to political prisoners or human rights defenders, who are detained for expressing critical or dissenting views.