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The worrying impact of the coronavirus outbreak on detainees

On March 25, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former French Health Minister Michelle Bachelet urged governments to allow some inmates to be let out of detention facilities amid the coronavirus outbreak. She stated that “in many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible”.[1]

In her statement, Michelle Bachelet pointed specifically to the inmates that are particularly vulnerable, as well as low-risk offenders. “Now, more than ever, Governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis”, she stated.


She noted that several countries had already taken measures in that sense.


In France, more than 4,000 inmates have been authorized to leave their detention facilities early since the beginning of the lockdown on March 16th. The inmates who can benefit from the measures are the ones who have no more than 2 months left on their sentence, and have not been convicted on criminal, terrorism or domestic violence charges. An inmate at the Fresnes prison, in the Paris area, died of the virus on March 8th.[2] However, the Justice Minister, Nicole Belloubet, has refused to approve a measure which would allow inmates in pre-trial detention to benefit from early release.[3]


As of 2 April 2020, in the French prisons, have been identified:

  • Among the penitentiary staff :
    • 114 positive cases, including 85 wards ;
    • 1328 persons signaled, including 931 in quarantine
  • Among the detainees :
    • 48 positive cases, including 12 hospitalized
    • 687 persons signaled or in quarantine.


In addition, family visits to the inmates have been suspended in the French prisons until further notice to limit the spread of the virus.


The same measure taken in Italy has raised concerns among inmates, and several detention facilities reported mutiny.


US detention facilities have registered multiple coronavirus cases, and some have started to evacuate inmates from overcrowded cells. The federal government has not provided facilities with guidance on sanitary measures, which leaves the release of inmates to the discretion of the local counties.[4]

[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19 “rampaging through places of detention” – Bachelet, 25 March 2020, available at:
[2], Coronavirus : 3 500 détenus libérés depuis le début du confinement, 29 March 2020
[3], Prison : pas de libération de détenus non jugés, 27 March 2020
[4], ‘Jails Are Petri Dishes’: Inmates Freed as the Virus Spreads Behind Bars, 30 March 2020


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