Updated: Apr 7, 2021
Decongesting prisons is a logical approach to limiting the spread of Covid-19: time to release drug users in prison
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities in West Africa have made enormous efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, particularly in prisons and other detention centres. Some governments have sponsored regular disinfection of prisons and distributed protective equipment to prison officers. Others have minimized prison visitations and even released a few prisoners. These efforts, while commendable, have not had a significant impact on reducing the size of prison populations across the sub-region. It is reported that 14 West African countries are among 115 countries where the total prison population exceeds the official capacity of their prisons.
Overcrowding in prisons is a major problem in many jurisdictions, and presents is a major impediment to limiting the spread of the Coronavirus disease. It makes social distancing and regular hygiene practices, which are the fundamental behavioural requirements to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, almost impossible. It undermines the ability of prison administrators to meet basic human rights and health care standards for inmates; To keep the virus out of prisons and detention facilities or limit its spread in those places, authorities in West Africa need to consider releasing inmates and detainees, especially those facing charges or prison terms for minor, non-violent drug offences. Shutting down compulsory detention centres (ostensibly for the purpose of rehabilitation) for persons suspected of having used or abused drugs could be helpful. No evidence exists that these compulsory detention centres are effective in treating or rehabilitating drug dependence. The detention of people in such facilities raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, hence increasing the risks of COVID-19 outbreak therein.
The recent joint statement by WHO, UNAIDS, UNODC and OHCHR on COVID-19 in prisons and the United Nations’ COVID-19 prison decongestion measures provide clear pathways to decongesting prisons, and political leaders in the sub-region may find them useful. The recommended pathways include limitations on arrests, fast track judicial reviews, conversion to non-custodial sentences, and amnesty or pardons. After carefully assessing the risks associated with releasing prisoners, these global actors have outlined categories of prisoners or inmates who political authorities should consider for release. They are low-risk and vulnerable prisoners such as the aged and women, those with pre-existing health conditions, and minor non-violent offenders, who pose no threat to public safety. My recommendation is based on the finding of the Global Commission on Drugs, which notes that minor, nonviolent drug offenders, who are often those arrested for drug use and possession, form a larger constituent of these categories and prison population in general. People who use drugs are mostly nonviolent and, therefore, will pose no threat to public safety if they are released from prison.
Depending on their drug use behaviour, people who use drugs are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis, which increase their risk of getting severely sick or dying after contracting the virus. The poor access to proper medical services, rehabilitation and nutritional facilities in prisons only makes matters worse. Given the high percentage of persons held in prisons for drug use or abuse-related offences, releasing people who fall in that category would not only significantly reduce the prison population, but it would also help them access appropriate services outside the prison. Releasing prisoners in that category would be helpful, but decongesting prisons would also require that there is a limit on arrests and non-mandatory detention, particularly for the recommended categories of offenders.
Given the high pre-trial detention rates in many settings where the overuse of detention is a common feature, the United Nations’ COVID-19 prison decongestion measures recommend that national authorities should undertake immediate reviews of all cases of pre-trial detention to determine whether they are strictly necessary, considering the prevailing public health emergency. Fast-track judicial reviews and release of pretrial detainees must also take into consideration the release of all individuals in pre-trial detention who are suspected to have committed low level or non-violent offences.
We cannot afford to ignore the compelling evidence that keeping people in prison for mere possession of or use of drugs does not deter drug use; on the contrary, it overburdens the criminal justice system, increases law enforcement budgets and, most times leads to a violation of the rights of people who use drugs. This is principally why the West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN) has recommended that political authorities regard drug use primarily as a public health concern and not a criminal justice issue. Decriminalizing personal use and possession of drugs can go a long way in depopulating prisons and other detention centres in the sub-region.
By Prince Bull-Luseni
West Africa Drug Policy Network