Close to 11 million detainees including hundreds of thousands of children worldwide may be strongly impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, detention facilities for children in particular do not meet the minimum requirements set forth in international and regional legal instruments. The lack of adequate healthcare services in these facilities can lead to the spread of the coronavirus disease, putting at severe risk not only detainees but also the staff, the families and communities. Therefore, the vulnerability of detention facilities to an outbreak of COVID-19 must be of grave concern to all countries and become an integral part of a national response to COVID-19.

Children deprived of liberty are at greater risk

According to Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), children have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Nevertheless, children deprived of liberty are at greater risk to contract the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). An outbreak of any communicable disease presents particular risks for detention facilities due to the vulnerability of the population and the difficulties in containing an outbreak. Children are more vulnerable because of the confined conditions and the additional challenges they face in accessing a range of services, including health care, mental health and psychosocial support and education. Under these conditions, detention facilities may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of COVID-19 for children inside and outside the facilities especially since they are more likely to have compromised access to information about the outbreak, including much needed information about how to protect themselves, identify symptoms and seek treatment.

In responding to the coronavirus outbreak, States needs when devising and implementing their response plans to address implementation of coordinated responses to ensure that the human rights of every child who is deprived of her or his liberty are fully respected, protected and fulfilled.

public health

Within detention facilities COVID-19 prevention and control measures alone may prove insufficient due to several factors :

1. Many prison systems are plagued by overcrowding and other systemic challenges;

2. Public health prevention and control measures within detention facilities may increase children’s vulnerability, including gender-based violence, since that detention facilities are far from children’s families, homes and communities and regular communication is often limited;

3. Staff illness can lead to staff reduction below acceptable levels for care and protection of children deprived of their liberty, potentially exacerbating children’s vulnerability due to lack of supervision and care, including their vulnerability to violence, abuse, and neglect;

4. The number of children deprived of liberty or those unable to be released in spite of amnesties or general release orders could increase due to closures of courts, suspension of criminal trials or administrative hearings, restrictions on freedom of movement, limiting access to lawyers or families.

Therefore, evidence-based COVID-19 prevention and control measures in detention facilities for children are urgently needed and should be implemented in full compliance with human rights and international standards and norms in justice for children and child protection.

Measures imposed to control the spread of the virus and its societal impacts are also likely to negatively affect the children well-being and healthy development, including adequate care while detained, and family and community support.

strengthening justice systems for children

UNODC has the mandate and works all over the world to support countries in preventing crime and violence and in strengthening justice systems, including in relation to children in contact with the law, as alleged offenders, victims and witnesses of crime. UNODC’s objective is to ensure that children – defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child as all persons under the age of eighteen – are better served and protected by justice systems, and that international standards and norms are applied to safeguard the rights of children in the administration of justice. The work of UNODC regarding justice for children has been implemented since 2015 through its Global Programme to End Violence against Children (Global Programme to END VAC) and has a strong focus on protecting the rights of children deprived of liberty.

UNODC’s positioning as part of the overall COVID-19 response

In March 2020, UNODC took part in an inter-agency process and contributed to the development of an Inter-Agency Technical Guidance on COVID-19 and Children Deprived of Liberty. The interagency group is composed of UN entities and CSOs and is a joint effort with the Alliance on Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. It was in response to the recent guidance issued by UNICEF and the Alliance on COVID-19 and Child Protection, and the identified need of States for more specific guidance in relation to children deprived of their liberty.

technical assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The Inter-Agency Technical Guidance is aimed to provide States with recommendations on how to ensure the well-being of children in detention during the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to this Guidance, UNODC, through its Global Programme to END VAC, offers a number of Technical Assistance Services to support Member States, upon request, in better protecting the rights of children in detention during the COVID-19 outbreak. In this context, the Global Programme’s action-oriented guidance is based on three key services:

I - Support to strategic planning to the public sector

Decongest juvenile detention facilities (promote alternatives to pre-trial detention; early release schemes; legal aid programmes).

Combat the COVID-19 outbreak within locations (develop mechanisms of coordination among government and judicial institutions involving health professionals; management of legal aid programmes; complaint and requests mechanisms).

Minimize risks of violence, exploitation and abuse (implement child safeguarding policies, procedures, complaint and requests mechanisms; procedures to allow every child to have regular access and contact with legal representatives; guidelines to respond to the specific needs of girls).

II - Institution and Capacity Building

Improve conditions of detention and the treatment of children (develop COVID-19 management programmes child-sensitive and age-appropriate; enhanced access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services; on-entry health screening measures; programmes to ensure availability of services necessary to enable the continued health and wellbeing; provide treatment for COVID19 and other health conditions).

Support the provision of legal aid and legal representation programmes (develop procedures and mechanisms to ensure the extension of visitation times and staggering of visits; mechanisms of reporting and monitoring about the number of attorneys available, the delivery of legal aid services; contact of legal representatives and frequency of visits and contact).

Enhance probation services or other supervision/monitoring systems of non-custodial sanctions and measures (develop schemes of cooperation of multidisciplinary teams; data collection systems to analyze trends and provide targeted services; provide support to establish the roles, responsibilities, functions, and duties of probation officers in child-related cases in the pre-trial stage, trial stage, and upon conditional release).

Support the establishment and strengthening of independent inspection bodies (develop standards and procedures for independent inspection bodies; system for responding and follow-up to recommendations from independent inspection bodies).

Provide for technology solutions that uphold children’s rights (develop and implement technology solutions to enable remote hearings; access to legal representatives; children's rights to be upheld in virtual procedures).

Develop national and local professional capacities to comply with international human rights standards (manage planning, research and information systems; international standards and norms of human rights and the rights of the child; child-friendly interviewing and communication; preventative and alternative conflict resolution mechanisms; the treatment of children upon arrest; alternative measures to formal judicial proceedings and to detention; treatment of children during adjudicatory phase; social reintegration of offenders and ex-offenders; inspection procedures).

III - Information, Advocacy and Awareness raising

Develop communication strategies, public information/education programmes to raise awareness (raise awareness and improve communication about children deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 outbreak; implement communication tools and activities related to the COVID-19 outbreak, to support the dissemination of information; develop information campaign to raise awareness about the harmful effects of child detention and the heightened risk of contraction of COVID-19; develop a specialised approach in building information architecture and information reporting on the rights of children deprived of their liberty; implement local communication activities and clusters channels; develop media and multimedia materials to enable the concept of social reintegration needs of child offenders and ex-offenders).

The vast majority of children deprived of liberty will eventually return to their communities. Thus, the failure to address protection and care needs for children could lead to a rapid increase in the transmission of COVID-19 within detention facilities, while compromising the safety and health of the general public. In the interest of public health protection, States should plan coordinated approaches to accommodate protection needs within detention facilities for children when devising and implementing their national response plans to ensure the recovery of the whole community.