NHRCK Chairperson’s Statement on Mass COVID-19 Infection at Correctional Facilities
-Inmates infected with COVID-19 should receive proper medical care under Article 44 of Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act-
Since a cluster of COVID-19 infections emerged at correctional facilities, the number of confirmed cases has increased steadily and some of the inmates have lost their lives to the virus. The possibility of transmission to other correctional centers or another wave of mass infection is also a matter of grave concern. The Ministry of Justice is putting forward emergency measures to deal with the day-to-day case increase at correctional centers.
Despite such efforts, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea continues to receive complaints from inmates about an inadequate response from prison officers even after the reporting of suspicious symptoms and from their families about a lack of communication with family members about the test results or present conditions of inmates.
Amid the mass infection and rapid spread of COVID-19 at correctional facilities, the Commission releases a statement to highlight the importance of shifting away from the existing approach to take decisive measures and promote cooperation and the human rights principles calling for the protection of lives and health of all people in any circumstances.
It is necessary to avoid contact with other people to control the spread of the virus, but inmates are different from other groups of society as they lack their own modes of communication. The authorities should actively consider introducing a means of communication not permitted in ordinary times on a temporary basis to effectively communicate information about the health and treatment of inmates to people outside, including their family members, and deliver COVID-19 updates to inmates.
Correctional facilities are vulnerable to COVID-19 and fears about infection can disrupt facility management. The Commission issued a recommendation to the Ministry of Justice in 2018 that the Ministry enhance conditions of overcrowded detention facilities and expand medical system for inmates. However, no visible progress has been made since then. Overcrowding and inadequate medical system of correction facilities make it difficult to provide proper medical treatment for a large number of infected inmates in an efficient manner.
The Ministry of Justice announced that it will place confirmed patients in small numbers in different locations and allow those with severe symptoms to be treated at dedicated COVID-19 hospitals. It also considers deployment of emergency medical workers such as public health doctors to correctional facilities. However, it is difficult to provide adequate medical care, as set forth in Article 44 of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, for patients placed in isolation inside correctional facilities. Inmates should be given access to emergency and professional treatment as well as universal health care and should be managed by the medical system of the disease control authorities. An emergency can happen at any time. Correctional facilities should share with the public COVID-19 case numbers, treatment, patient conditions and response measures in a transparent manner and establish a system for close cooperation with the disease control authorities. In particular, special measures should be adopted for those with underlying conditions, older persons, pregnant women and persons with disabilities at correctional facilities.
Fundamentally, the Commission asks the correctional authorities to move swiftly to improve prison conditions and upgrade medical services for inmates and work closely with ministries of economic affairs and law enforcement authorities for this purpose.
The Commission extends its heartfelt sympathy to inmates and their families affected by mass infections and sincere gratitude to prison officers, medical workers and disease control centers for doing their utmost to protect the health of inmates.
The Commission will do its part by actively monitoring the human rights situation of inmates and prison officers during the pandemic and investigate the complaints received to provide remedies and prevent recurrence of similar incidents.