NHRIs caution against overpopulation in places of detention

01 February 2021

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from Cyprus, Scotland and Zambia have raised concerns about the COVID-19 risk associated with packed detention centres. As the pandemic continues to make waves across the all aspects of life globally, detained people are acutely at risk of contracting the highly transmissible virus due to cramped living conditions, poor sanitation and in some countries, a growing population in detention. Commonwealth NHRIs have called attention to the potential human rights violation and have called for swift action from governments to lessen the risk to workers and detained people.


The Office of the Commissioner for Administration and the Protection of Human Rights in Cyprus (Ombudsman) has warned that Pournara reception centre for people seeking asylum is ‘bursting at the seams’ amid an increasing flow of migrants. In a report issued after a visit to the site in April 2020 (In Greek), the Ombudsman noted that despite some improvement in living conditions, the facility is operating beyond its limits.

As of December 2020, there were 968 people living at Pournara, including 103 minors. The facility was initially built to house up to 350 asylum seekers for no more than 72 hours on arrival. Some detainees have been held at the facility for more than four months.

Among its recommendations to government, the Ombudsman has called for the immediate release of 200 eligible residents. It also highlighted that a lack of space means that quarantine processes are not being managed effectively. It recommended that more hygiene facilities are installed.

Read the full story at Cyprus Mail.


The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice highlighting another increase in the prison population – from 6,869 on 29 May 2020, to 7,465 on 2 January 2021, including 1,832 people who are on remand, so have not yet been tried.

Citing a briefing from April 2020, the SHRC has already urged for the reduction in the prison population to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading in the prison population and subsequently, to the community. Highlighting the UK strain of the virus, which is reported to be 70% more transmissible, the SHRC is extremely concerned about the inherent risk of maintaining people in close confinement.

Prison inspections and monitoring programmes have largely been suspended due to the pandemic, but SHRC have been unable to access any data about how prisoners’ fundamental rights are being fulfilled. In particular, the SHRC is concerned that steps taken to prevent transmission of the virus mean that prisoners’ rights to out of cell time, access to outdoor exercise and time spent in purposeful activity are denied.

Source: Scottish Human Rights Commission


The Human Rights Commission of Zambia (HRC) has commended President Edgar Lungu for commuting the sentences of 246 death row inmates at the Mukobeko Maximum Security Correctional Facility. The order from the President was a direct action to address overcrowding in Mukobeko’s death row section, which the HRC raised as as an issue early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The HRC noted that the now reduced number of inmates on death row will now allow for proper spatial separation among those who remain, which will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses among detainees and staff. There have been 67 reported cases of COVID-19 in prison facilities across Zambia and the HRC is calling for swift interventions to prevent further spread.

Zambia has not carried out any executions since 1997 and is considered a defacto death penalty abolitionist country. The HRC has called President Lungu’s decision another positive step toward total abolition.

Source: Human Rights Commission of Zambia




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