Prisoners around the world have been forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic, says a new report published by Amnesty International today.

According to the report 'Forgotten Behind Bars: COVID-19 and Prisons', prisons have faced systemic challenges in preventing the virus spread with control measures, leading to serious human rights violations.

AI has sought inclusion of millions of people languishing in overcrowded cells in national vaccination roll-outs.

With more than 11 million estimated people imprisoned globally, prisons in many countries risk becoming hotbeds for the disease. Many inmates struggle to access soap, proper sanitation, or personal protective equipment, while physical distancing is difficult to maintain and only limited health care is available.

"As COVID-19 continues to rip through prisons across the world, measures introduced by governments to prevent the spread of the disease have led to human rights violations, including the use of excessive solitary confinement to aid social distancing and inadequate measures to reduce the detrimental effects of isolation," said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's Research and Advocacy Director.

The full scale of COVID-19 infections and related deaths in prisons is hard to assess as governments have failed to provide up-to-date, reliable information. However, available data indicates worrying patterns of COVID-19 infections in prisons across the world. Many governments remain silent on their plans to vaccinate prisoners who are particularly at risk.

The report said overcrowding was widely recognised as one of the most serious problems in prisons today. Around 102 countries, including Nepal, have reported prison occupancy levels of over 110 per cent, with a significant proportion of prisoners charged with, or convicted of, non-violent crimes.

Though steps have been taken to release eligible prisoners, AI 's research indicates that the current release rates are insufficient to address the huge risk posed by the virus.

"Many countries with dangerously high levels of prison overcrowding, such as Bulgaria, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal, have failed to address concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks.

In other countries, such as Iran and Turkey, hundreds of prisoners detained arbitrarily, including human rights defenders, were excluded from COVID-19-related releases," said Belay.

In many countries, prison authorities have resorted to dangerous measures, including excessive and abusive confinement and quarantine measures to tackle the COV- ID-19 crisis, leading to serious human rights violations. "Excessive and abusive isolation and quarantine measures were used to contain the spread of COVID-19 in some prisons around the world. In some cases, these could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Humane measures to protect prisoners must be put in place now," said Belay.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 19, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.