Persons with disabilities in prison and COVID-19

This article is from the fourth edition of the Disability Voice 2020 (May 18th)

The European disability rights movement has rightfully dedicacted much attention to persons in institutions throughout the pandemic, as their situations have mostly gotten worse in several places, with reports of people getting locked inside their rooms and left behind. A group we wanted to find out more about are persons with disabilities in prison.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović references persons with disabilities as part of the most vulnerable group of prisoners in her statement COVID-19 pandemic : urgent steps needed to protect the rights of prisoners in Europe. The Council of Europe has also put out a video on the situation of 1.5 million prisoners in Europe, but do not reference disability. There are no subtitles but the full transcript is below the video.

We read through the list of prevention measures against COVID-19 taken in European prisons on the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services (EuroPris) website. Albania is the only country to reference persons with disabilities (« chronic patients » placed under constant monitoring). The Department of Prisons of the French Ministry of Justice sent out a query on national administration emergency procedures to avoid the spread of coronavirus in prison. 15 Member States answered. The answers of Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Scotland, Spain and Sweden are available to non members on the EuroPris website. None of them mention disability.

As part of the Just4All project on access to justice, we have reached out to prison organisations to request specific information on measures taken to protect persons with disabilities throughout the pandemic and raise awareness of the Just4All list of resources to prisons as legal operators. The responses we have received so far are compiled in the report below.

Disability rights activists outside of Europe have been proactive, including disability rights organisations in the USA that have called for the release of vulnerable prisoners, and the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia who has drawn attention to the harmful practice of solitary confinement used to reduce the infection riskHuman Rights Watch has put out guidance on reducing prison populations in several countries.

We will continue to gather information to better include prisoners with disabilities in our work.