Article originally published on LIBERTIES, 20 March 2020 – accessible here

Belgian rights groups are urging authorities to implement strong measures to mitigate the coronavirus crisis in the country’s overcrowded prison system.

During the coronavirus crisis, the Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH) recalls that health is a fundamental right. In the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, all of us have the right to be protected as much as possible, and if necessary, to access the best possible treatment. People in detention are particularly at risk and must be adequately protected, as health is a fundamental right that must respected.

A bad situation has got much worse

The situation in prisons is particularly serious during the coronavirus outbreak, for several reasons.

Under normal circumstances, detention conditions are already very precarious in Belgian prisons. Due to chronic overcrowding in many facilities, detainees find themselves in a physical proximity that is especially dangerous against the backdrop of this global pandemic, as several inmates often share a single cell and may not be able to avoid contaminating each other.

Detainees are an especially vulnerable group when it comes to health issues, with infectious diseases, addiction issues and mental illness rates being far higher in prison. The spread of the epidemic inside prisons could be particularly dramatic, which places the lives of incarcerated people at serious risk.

LDH calls for dramatic measures

In light of this, LDH is urging authorities to take significant measures to protect detainees. The measures include:

  • Releasing detainees in pre-trial detention who do not pose a risk to the public.
  • Releasing all elderly and sick detainees, or those who are considered vulnerable. Using conditional release in as many cases as possible.
  • Strengthening health monitoring of those detainees who do stay in prison, with efficient and safe means to look after their health. This should include improving access to phone calls, allowing free phone access, and allowing people, including lawyers, to call detainees without having to enter prison facilities.

These measures are beneficial not only for the prisoners themselves but also for all the people who are in contact with them, including prison staff, and on a wider scale, for society as a whole.

Signatories:

Belgian League of Human Rights

International Prisons Observatory – Belgian section