Overcrowding and the risk of unmitigated spread of COVID-19 in Madagascar's prisons

By Tamara LÉGER, Amnesty International's Madagascar Advisor

On 10 March, 33-year-old Domoina was sent to Antanimora prison, in the Madagascan capital, Antananarivo, to be held in pre-trial detention on charges of ‘corruption of minors’. She was arrested on suspicion of having a same-sex relationship with her 19-year-old girlfriend, Fyh. This followed a tip off to the police by Fyh’s mother. In Madagascar, the penal code severely punishes ‘anyone who has committed an indecent or unnatural act with an individual of the same sex, under the age of 21 years’.

Domoina is worried that with the COVID 19 outbreak, she could become another statistic in those lost to the pandemic.

She should be released from prison immediately and unconditionally, as the law which put her there is discriminatory – consensual same sex relations should not be criminalized. Unless the government releases her, it is likely that she will spend many more months behind bars: her trial, initially planned for 10 April, has now been postponed indefinitely because of the country’s lockdown against COVID-19. Following the confirmation of the first cases of COVID19 on 20 March, the government announced measures to curb the spread of the virus. As a result, she can no longer receive visits from her lawyer, family or friends – in a context which is extremely challenging both physically and mentally.

Domoina is worried that with the COVID 19 outbreak, she could become another statistic in those lost to the pandemic. And it’s understandable. If the government fails to protect detainees, Madagascar’s prisons could easily become hotspots for the transmission of the virus.

Since 2018, Amnesty International has documented and reported on the inhumane conditions of detention in Madagascar’s prisons, caused primarily by the country’s excessive use of pre-trial detention. The lack of attention over a prolonged period given to ensuring that prisons are well maintained, and cases are heard within a reasonable time, has resulted in highly overcrowded prisons. The country currently has twice as many detainees as its overall capacity - in some prisons, the population is at ten times capacity. Pre-trial and sentenced detainees are crammed in together – in violation of international and national law – in dark cells, without sufficient ventilation. Most detainees sleep on the floor without any blankets or mattresses. The majority of detainees interviewed by Amnesty International complained about the lack of hygiene, malnutrition caused by insufficient and poor-quality food, and they told us that they had fallen ill since their incarceration with very little access to healthcare.

Domoina should not have spent a single day in prison. Now, every additional day she is behind bars increases the risks to her mental and physical well-being

Thinking of Domoina in those unhygienic conditions raises concerns about what could happen to her, and the thousands of other women, children and men held in Madagascar’s prisons, should the coronavirus reach the prisons’ walls. Because of the appalling conditions they are kept in, detainees are unable to take preventative steps to protect themselves against COVID-19, such as washing their hands regularly, and remaining at a safe distance one from the other, when they don’t even have enough space to sleep on their backs.

The government announced a few measures to protect detainees from COVID-19, such as temporarily stopping all prison visits, taking the temperatures of detainees and prison personnel regularly and disinfecting the prisons. However, given the unprecedented rate at which the virus is spread, coupled with its high mortality rate and the overcrowding in prisons, it seems difficult to imagine how they will prevent the pandemic from spreading within the walls of the prisons, with dramatic consequences. This is why the government must urgently consider measures to reduce the prison population. The first step is to release immediately those who should not be detained at all, like Domoina, who is imprisoned simply for exercising her human rights. The government should also urgently consider the release of other prisoners – especially pre-trial detainees and those who may be more at risk from the virus, such as older prisoners or those with serious medical conditions. In any case, the authorities must take necessary measures to protect the health of all prisoners.

In November, President Rajoelina committed to tackling the country’s excessive use of pre-trial detention and severe overcrowding, and to improve conditions of detention. The present health crisis provides the opportunity for Madagascar to reduce its excessive use of pre-trial detention. According to international human rights law and standards, there is a presumption of release pending trial – in accordance with the presumption of innocence and right to liberty – so pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure, yet it is applied routinely in Madagascar, leading to severe overcrowding in prisons.

Thinking of Domoina in those unhygienic conditions raises concerns about what could happen to her, and the thousands of other women, children and men held in Madagascar’s prisons, should the coronavirus reach the prisons’ walls.

Domoina should not have spent a single day in prison. Now, every additional day she is behind bars increases the risks to her mental and physical well-being, particularly as she no longer has access to her lawyer or relatives, and given the conditions of detention. In this context of a worsening pandemic such as the COVID-19, she is unable to protect herself by exercising social distancing and taking other preventative measures. The provision of healthcare for prisoners – to the same standards that are available in the community – is a state responsibility, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19. The current condition of Madagascan prisons makes it near impossible to provide such standards of care. If no measures are taken to urgently decongest the prisons, where around 50% of inmates are pre-trial detainees, Domoina and thousands of others face grave risks to their health, and lives.

Take Action and join our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Domoina and for the Government of Madagascar to effect immediate measures to ensure that the health and safety of detainees is a priority in the fight against COVID-19.

• Domoina’s family name is withheld to protect her.

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