Advocacy update

Groups Call on a Brazilian Court to Uphold Human Rights in Prisons during the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 19, 2020
Brooke Havlik

The Justice Initiative, in partnership with civil society organizations Conectas and Elas Existem, has submitted a joint amici curae brief to the Court of Justice of the State of Rio de Janeiro detailing the government’s obligations under international law to protect the human rights of incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brief was filed in a case against the State put forth by the Public Defender and Public Prosecutor Offices’ of Rio in support of the plaintiffs’ request for urgent precautionary measures to improve prison conditions.

“In a country with the world’s third-largest prison population, we cannot leave incarcerated populations defenseless against the virus,” said Henrique Apolinario, a lawyer for Conectas' Institutional Violence Program. “What’s more, public health specialists agree that failing to implement these basic protections that are essential in prisons will lead to the spread of the virus in the surrounding communities."

Caroline Bispo, director and co-founder of Elas Existem Mulheres Encarceradas, emphasized the need to include specific measures protecting incarcerated women against COVID-19: “Women in the prison system, cis and trans, are frequently erased and invisible in the prison system. Their unique health needs, which include elderly care, prenatal and postpartum care, and cultural needs, for instance, respect for indigenous identity, must be taken into account.”

In the brief submitted to the court, the groups reiterate recommendations issued by international bodies, including the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the World Health Organization, to States in response to COVID-19. These recommendations include protecting incarcerated populations and staff from the spread of the virus by not only reducing the prison population and ensuring physical distancing, but also by addressing systemic problems such as overcrowding, poor living and sanitary conditions, and absent or inadequate health services. The SPT has also instructed governments to refrain from employing solitary confinement as a means of medical isolation.

“The COVID-19 crisis has made it urgent for governments to find alternatives to incarceration and take seriously their legal responsibility to protect the health and lives of those in custody,” said Masha Lisitsyna, Senior Managing Legal Officer at the Justice Initiative. “As underscored by court decisions from Mexico, Argentina, and the United States, the judiciary and other independent state bodies play a critical role in ensuring that human rights are protected in prisons and places of detention around the world.”

Expert contributors to the amici brief include medical professionals associated with Physicians for Human Rights, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Italian non-profit organization Antigone. The brief also cites an international medical expert panel including scientists from Yale and Stanford Universities in the United States, and Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Brazil, that submitted an affidavit as part of the case filing.


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