International organizations such as WHO/Europe, UNODC, CPT and the Commissioner for Human Rights assert that reducing the prison population is one of the key necessary measures for preventing widespread of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention. This recommendation is especially noteworthy for Georgia in the light of the monitoring reports of the National Preventive Mechanism.
For instance, according to the 2016 report, maintaining sanitary-hygienic conditions is particularly challenging at the penitentiary department N17, which raises the risk of spreading infectious diseases at the institution. According to the latest data, the problem of prison overcrowding remains unresolved in Georgia. For example, while the maximum capacity of inmates at facility N15 is 1388, 1900 prisoners resided at the institution in 2019.
According to the 2019 report by the National Preventive Mechanism, the number of staff members employed for ensuring the safety and security of the inmates was not sufficient at the prisons selected for monitoring. Due to the combination of these problems, “[...] institutions fail to provide necessary supervision of the prisoners”. The monitoring also revealed the problems of ventilation and sanitation. Some facilities do not have an electronic ventilation system, while others do not even have access to natural ventilation. Perhaps most notably, the monitoring revealed that "[...] penitentiary health care system still lacks qualified medical staff [...].”
Adhering to the rules of social distancing, hygiene, and sanitation are crucial for preventing the spread of the virus. The threat of the widespread becomes even more dangerous under the circumstances of lack of medical staff (some of which may themselves face the need for isolation).
Even though cases of COVID-19 have not yet been detected at the penitentiary system, the Georgian authorities need to develop a crisis management plan in advance.
It should be noted that according to the order of the Minister of Justice of Georgia dated April 16, during the State of Emergency, "[...] probationers and parolees are released [...] from the obligation to register and register for probation by the probation officer“. Although the step should be assessed positively it is insufficient to address all existing risks. We believe that in case of such necessity the Georgian penitentiary system should be ready, to immediately release law risk prisoners from custody. The need is also triggered by the fact that an infected individual may be asymptomatic and the virus may “live” in a detention facility for days without the administration or medical staff being aware of it. This risk is reflected in the results of mass coronavirus testing undergoing in the USA prisons, 96% of inmates in four states tested positive while being asymptomatic.
The penitentiary system, including the representatives of prison administrations, the health care system and the legal professionals should conduct risk-assessment of inmates and develop a list of low-risk prisoners, which will be temporally released from custody, in the event of an escalation of the crisis. According to the recommendations and experience of various countries, these may be prisoners within the last 12 months of their sentence, those with severe health conditions, elderly prison population, pregnant women, mothers with infants, inmates imprisoned for due to the failure to pay their bails, persons detained for the personal use of drugs, etc.
The topic of urgently releasing prisoners is not on the agenda today. Moreover the lack of the staff members necessary to effectively manage the sanitary situation in the prisons of Georgia is not the issue that can be resolved in a day or two. The issue of 780 employees living at the territory of penitentiary institutions until the end of the pandemic is also highly problematic. Therefore, it would be reasonable for the Georgian authorities to respond to the crisis, by temporarily or permanently releasing selected low-risk prisoners in case if such necessity arises due to the spread of the virus.
It should be noted that the Constitution of Georgia authorizes the President to pardon convicts, without the need of co-signature from the Prime Minister. Accordingly, the president is granted the mandate to work on the issue of reducing the number of individuals placed at the penitentiary institutions. No need to mention, those included in the list of the predetermined list should not pose threat to public safety.
The measure of releasing the prisoners, as noted by various organizations and committees, is not only necessary but also inevitable in countries facing the problem of prison overcrowding. It should also be noted that overcrowding should be defined by taking into consideration the overall capacity of prisons and its population, as well as by the number of inmates placed at shared cells. Decreasing the number of the prison population, will not only serve the purpose of preventing the spread of infection within the prison population but will also benefit the general interest of the public e.g. avoiding overcrowding of hospitals.
 National Preventive Mechanism, “Report on the Visit to the Prison N17”, 2016, p. 21.
National Preventive Mechanism, “Report on the Monitoring Visits to Establishments 2, 8, 14, 15”, 2019, p. 17.
 See Footnote 20, p. 32.
 Ibid, p. 51.
 Order No. 522 of the Minister of Justice of Georgia of April 16, 2020, Article 1.
 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-prisons-testing-in/in-four-us-state-prisons-nearly- 3300-inmates-test-positive-for-coronavirus-96-without-symptoms-idUSKCN2270RX?fbclid=IwAR0h_Dt- VmLcw6LF84AXUfVevFv0p0Y-0RgiqYH1wKgU04vepJ7ARkWvJIQ.
This material has been financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. Responsibility for the content rests entirely with the creator. Sida does not necessarily share the expressed views and interpretations.
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