As the pandemic spreads across the world claiming thousands of lives daily, prisoners remain the most susceptible members of society, especially as prisons in Lebanon are overcrowded and do not comply with proper human rights standards.

An unofficial source estimates that there are around 7,000 prisoners in Lebanon, with 4,000 in Roumieh Central Prison. Prisoners can be divided into two categories: convicts, estimated at around 2,500, and detainees, estimated at around 4,500. All of these inmates are held in conditions that fall short of basic human rights standards, with overcrowded prisons pushed to accommodate over 300 percent of their capacity in inmates. 

In Lebanon, where prison conditions had already been squalid, from overcrowding to trials delays, and amid deteriorating health, economic, social and psychological conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

The Lebanese government rushed to form an emergency committee to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanese prisons. The committee members were mandated by caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmy to meet periodically in order to evaluate the situation in prisons and explore ways to limit the spread of COVID-19 within them.

World Health Organization

Given the limited capabilities of the Lebanese state, the committee included several relevant unions, bodies, and international organizations, such as the World Health Organization. WHO told Beirut Today that the goal of the committee is to limit the spread of coronavirus in prisons and detention facilities, as well as to ensure access to timely and appropriate treatment.

According to WHO, the committee includes representatives from:

  • The ministries concerned with prisons (the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, in particular the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese General Security, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Public Health)
  • The National Commission for Human Rights
  • Relevant unions (the Doctors Syndicate, in particular the Lebanese Association of Infectious and Bacterial Diseases, the Nurses’ Syndicate, and the Bar Association)
  • The concerned international organizations (the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the International Committee of the Red Cross)
  • Other local bodies concerned with prisons and prisoners’ rights.

WHO also indicated that, in addition to raising awareness and providing trainings on COVID-19 prevention and protection methods, it has also provided hygiene and personal protective equipment.

WHO also ensured that prisoners with COVID-19 had access to dedicated hospital beds and fully-equipped isolation locations with specialized coronavirus nursing teams assisted by WHO and other international bodies.

The organization also put a number of special measures in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and places of detentions, as well as to detect cases of the virus among detainees.

Sources revealed that “the number of COVID-19 infections has increased in Roumieh prison, especially in the juvenile buildings and building D. However, the buildings housing convicts and building B remain completely free of infections.”

Did the committee succeed?

When asked if Lebanon can be expected to limit the spread of the pandemic in prisons like some other countries in the region had done, or if infected prisoners are being provided with the necessary medical care and medication, the World Health Organization asserted that “the committee’s measures succeeded in limiting the spread of the coronavirus in prisons and places of detention.”

“Additionally, comprehensive follow-up care, including hospitalization when needed, has been provided to prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 and those who came in contact with them.”

“New detainees are asked a series of questions to determine if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Screenings are conducted automatically in addition to a 14-day quarantine period before transfers between prisons and places of detention. Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 is immediately given a laboratory test. If the test comes back positive the prisoner is immediately isolated, those he came in contact with are tested, and preventive measures are increased.”

With no regards to the most basic human rights or public health standards, cells in Lebanese prisons accommodate far above capacity. The small rooms meant to accommodate one prisoner are currently housing between 3 and 6, while the rooms designed to accommodate 3 prisoners are made to house between 6 and 12.

Overcrowding and the Coronavirus

Overcrowding contributes to the spread of COVID-19. This is confirmed by WHO, which explained that “the emergency committee, with the help of the Ministry of Justice and the Bar Association, has worked to reduce overcrowding through all available legal means, including conducting remote trials and interrogations, activating the court in Roumieh, issuing releases according to simplified mechanisms, and reducing penalties for those convicted.”

Inmates and the vaccine 

WHO stressed to Beirut Today that in January the committee requested that the vaccination of all prisoners be among the list of priorities, adding that it will work with relevant agencies to provide prisoners with vaccinations as quickly as possible.

Meeting and recommendations:

On January 25, 2021, the committee held its periodic meeting to study and evaluate the results of their emergency plan which was prepared to combat the coronavirus and limit and control its spread in prisons.

The following recommendations were approved:

  • Appealing to the Ministry of Public Health to provide sufficient hospital beds and to allocate wards for infected prisoners in government and private hospitals to receive necessary and prompt care.
  • Following-up on the implementation of all previous measures.
  • Working to secure the vaccine as a priority –when it is available– for all prisoners as well as the medical staff and security personnel working in prisons.
  • Accelerating the creation of an appropriate mechanism to digitize the health records of inmates in a practical and well-thought-out manner that allows for instant and constant monitoring of inmates’ health status.

During a previous meeting, the committee had also stressed “the importance of conducting investigations and interrogations with detainees using an online video calling platform to expedite their trials.”

Latest Figures

On January 27, the Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces announced the latest number of infections across various prisons:

Based on laboratory tests, clinical examinations, and the appropriate amount of time having elapsed, it was determined that 678 of the 705 positive cases identified among prisoners in Roumieh Central Prison, the Beirut Justice Palace holding cells, and the Female Juvenile Prison had recovered. 2,702 PCR tests had been conducted, and one case was admitted to the hospital to receive the necessary treatment.

In Zahle Women’s Prison, and after a number of PCR tests, 6 positive cases were identified.

In Zgharta Prison, 10 positive cases were identified.

In the detention unit of the Beirut Police Unit, there are no positive cases.

As for the detention unit of the Judicial Police Unit, PCR tests conducted last Friday revealed three positive cases.

Access to Family Communication

The General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces stated that it facilitates communication between infected inmates and their families through phones stationed in prisons.

Families can also send a message to the lebisf  Facebook account on Messenger to follow up on the inmate’s health condition if needed.

The rights of prisoners

The measures taken by the Lebanese government to limit the spread of the virus in prisons, as well as the precautions taken by prisoners following training and awareness sessions, would all be in vain unless all inmates are vaccinated without discrimination in accordance with human rights principles.

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