Leaving No-one Behind: The Human Tragedy of Children in African Prisons during COVID-19

Marie Claire Van Hout

On March 25th 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged States to relieve prison congestion and reduce the prison/detainee population.[1] Accordingly,. assessing alternatives to imprisonment and implementing compassionate, conditional or early release schemes has become a critical component of the COVID-19 response and many states have started releasing prisoners (for example, Iran, Argentina, Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Tunisia and Turkey).[2]

UNICEF and the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action issued a statement on 13 April 2020 concerning the serious risk of children in detention contracting COVID-19, and called on States to urgently release all children to their families or alternative safe arrangements, and implement an immediate moratorium on new admissions of children.[3] Despite this statement, there has been very little published about the global numbers of children in detention identified for release or released during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are children under the age of 18 years, held in pre-trial custody, immigration detention or on other administrative grounds, detained in relation to armed conflict, national security or activism, or living with their parents in detention (global estimate 1.4 million).[4] Children should only be deprived of their liberty as a measure of last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time; and such detention must not be arbitrary [5]. Although children in general do not present with severe COVID-19 symptoms, those in detention already suffer from multiple health vulnerabilities including compromised immune systems, which leaves them at greater risk of severe COVID-19 responses.[6] They are therefore an important population to consider in the COVID-19 response in prisons because of pediatric disease severity (for example, classic Kawasaki disease), and their role in transmission. [7].

The World Health Organization has warned that the African continent could be the next COVID-19 epicenter, following a steep increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases by end of April 2020. Many African Member States are ill equipped in terms of hospital and diagnostic capacity, medical treatment (i.e. antiviral agents), and personal protective equipment (PPE).[8].By 7 May 2020, COVID-19 cases had been found among prisoners and/or prison staff in South Africa, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, and Cameroon.[9] Weak criminal justice systems in Africa contribute to severe prison congestion caused by high pre-trial detention rates (ranging from 9.9% in Egypt to 90% in Libya), often arbitrary and sometimes people being detained for years.[10] Tensions in prisons with COVID-19 cases are understandably high.

Many African Member States report that little has been done to control COVID-19 transmission in police stations, prisons, and detention centres. Successful quarantine, infection control, and preventative measures (physical distancing, handwashing, disinfection practices, temperature testing, COVID-19 testing) in prisons are obstructed by overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and lack of ventilation, sanitation, and medical supplies including testing kits and PPE. These conditions are conducive to COVID-19 transmission within prisons and into the local community. Alternative tactics to control the disease are reported; Ghana has instigated confinement protocols (48 hours to two weeks) prior to committal; visitation rights are suspended in Egypt, Algeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Botswana, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, Chad, Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda; and efforts to reduce congestion by early release are reported in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.[11]

Children are often held for lengthy periods in pre-trial detention in African prisons in deplorable conditions (overcrowded; lacking in water, sanitation, natural light, and ventilation; inadequate nutrition; exposure to disease, and insufficient access to pediatric healthcare). They are often incarcerated with adults, and are at huge risk of systemic neglect and abuse. The two main groups of children include those detained for alleged criminal offences, or those born to incarcerated women, and together they constitute from 0.2 to 10% of the general prison population.[12] Given the concerning levels of pediatric mortality and morbidity in African prisons, COVID-19 is leaving incarcerated children more vulnerable than ever.[13]

Of grave concern is that very few of the 56 African Member States are including children in early release schemes, and are not providing any detail on the proposed suspension of sentences, home arrests, release of children in detention, or numbers of children released during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only five states have made specific reference to the priority release of pregnant women and mothers with children in recent government protocols (Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Tunisia and Uganda) and only five specially refer to priority release of minors (South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Malawi and Morocco).[14]

Most African Member States are appearing to ignore the international call for urgent release of all children deprived of their liberty. Despite government and regional monitoring of the COVID-19 situation, detained children are essentially a forgotten prison population in the African race to tackle the virus. Children’s rights to non-discrimination, protection, health, safety, to be heard, to access to healthcare whilst detained are not being upheld.

It is an imperative that all children are prioritized and released safely during the COVID-19 crisis. African Member State responses must ensure urgently the best interests of the child and adhere to international and regional human rights law, standards and safeguards for children (i.e UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; UN Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Sanctions for Women Offenders; African Charters for Human and Peoples’ Rights; and Rights and Welfare of the Child). COVID-19 emergency measures cannot be used unlawfully to restrict or ignore children’s rights, and at a minimum must not result in the continued detention of children who would otherwise be released, or increase the number of children detained.[15]

International human rights accountability mechanisms need to direct their attention to the human rights failings being experienced by children in African prisons.[16]

Marie Claire Van Hout, is Professor of Public Health Policy and Practice at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moore’s University, Liverpool L32ET, United Kingdom. Email: m.c.vanhout@ljmu.ac.uk.

  1. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19“rampaging through places of detention” – Bachelet. 25th March, 2020. Available at Available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25745&LangID=E
  2. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Position paper COVID-19 preparedness and responses in prisons. 31st March 2020. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020. Available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/hiv-aids/publications/UNODC_position_paper_COVID-19_in_prisons_-_FINAL.pdf
  3. UNICEF and Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. Technical Note: COVID-19 and Children Deprived of their Liberty. April 14th 2020. Available at https://www.unicef.org/albania/reports/covid-19-and-children-deprived-their-liberty
  4. Penal Reform International. Global Prison Trends 2020. London: Penal Reform International, 2020. Available at https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Global-Prison-Trends-2020-Penal-Reform-International.pdf
  5. United Nations (UN) General Assembly (1989). The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3, General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. United Nations, New York.
  6. Ong, J., Tosoni, A., Kim, Y., et al Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Critically Ill Children: A Narrative Review of the Literature. Pediatric Critical Care Medicine. Apr 21st 2020 DOI: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000002376.
  7. Jones VG, Mills M, Suarez D, et al. COVID-19 and Kawasaki disease: novel virus and novel case. Hospital Pediatrics. 2020; DOI: 10.1542/hpeds.2020-0123; Zimmermann., P., Curtis, N. Coronavirus Infections in Children Including COVID-19. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. March 12th 2020. 39(5): 355–368. DOI: 10.1097/INF.0000000000002660
  8. Nkengasong, J.N Mankoula, W (2020). Looming threat of COVID-19 infection in Africa: act collectively, and fast. Lancet February 27th 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30464-5
  9. Prison Insider. Africa: coronavirus, prison fever. What are the consequences of the pandemic on the living conditions in African prisons? April 28th 2020. Available at https://www.prison-insider.com/en/articles/afrique-coronavirus-la-fievre-des-prisons
  10. World Prison Brief. Africa. Available at www.prisonstudies.org
  11. See note 9.
  12. Van Hout MC, Mhlanga-Gunda R. Contemporary women prisoners health experiences, unique prison health care needs and health care outcomes in sub Saharan Africa: a scoping review of extant literature. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 2018, 18(1), 31; Van Hout, M.C., & Mhlanga-Gunda, R. ‘Mankind owes to the child the best that it has to give’: Prison conditions and the health situation and rights of circumstantial children incarcerated in Sub Saharan African prisons. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 2019b, 19: 13.
  13. Van Hout, MC., Mhlanga-Gunda, R. Prison health situation and rights of juveniles incarcerated in Sub Saharan African prisons. BMC International Health and Human Rights. 2019a. 19:17; See also note 12.
  14. See note 9.
  15. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Protecting children deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 outbreak, Vienna; UNODC 2020. Available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/MoS_Children_in_detention_COVID-19.pdf.
  16. Mhlanga-Gunda R., Motsomi, N., Plugge, E., & Van Hout, MC., (2019). Challenges in ensuring robust and ethical health research and the reporting of health outcomes and standards in sub-Saharan African prisons. Lancet Global Health 2020; 8. See also notes 12 and 13.