GENEVA (29 May 2020) – UN human rights experts* today urged the United States Government to reduce the population in places of detention to prevent large outbreaks of COVID-19 and ease the mounting pressure on staff and the penitentiary system as a whole.
“We call on the United States Government to act now. Failure to take timely action may have far-reaching consequences,” they said.
“People in detention throughout the US are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and for many, their pre-existing medical conditions increase the risk of death,” the experts noted. “In these closed, and often overcrowded places, basic protective measures, such as physical distancing and hygiene rules, cannot be observed.
“Those at greatest risk should immediately be identified, taking into account situations of vulnerability, and release measures should be implemented,” the experts said. “Despite some steps at the federal and state levels to reduce the population of people in custody, the Government’s response has been insufficient.
“Minorities, including African-Americans, are disproportionately represented, both among the prison population and among those succumbing to COVID-19. Thus, any failure to effectively mitigate the resulting risk is also an issue of racial discrimination and racial justice of paramount importance,” the independent experts warned.
They called on the authorities to factor in that people belonging to minority groups, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans- and gender-diverse people, and people with disabilities are all more likely to experience COVID-19 related complications, due to underlying health conditions or inadequate access to appropriate routine medical care, which increases the risks in case of infection. The risks and needs of older persons (the fastest growing demographic group in prison) and pregnant women should also be given due consideration.
According to international standards, States should ensure that people in detention have access to the same standard of health care as is available in the community, and that this applies to everyone regardless of citizenship, nationality or migration status.
“The authorities must urgently use readily available alternatives to detention for migrants held in overcrowded and unsanitary administrative centres to counter the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak,” the experts added, urging the US Government to suspend immigration raids, deportations, expulsions or other forms of forced returns.
They reminded the authorities that the pandemic and the declaration of health emergency at federal, state or city level does not mean that human rights can be suspended. “The right to life, the right to health, the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the procedural guarantees protecting the liberty and dignity of the person, can never be derogated from.”
The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as theSpecial Proceduresof the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.