UN urges member states to close compulsory drug detention & rehab centres amid COVID-19 threat

A joint statement from various United Nations entities has called upon member states to “permanently close compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres” in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

This statement also makes reference to an earlier May 13, 2020 statement by UN agencies about the vulnerability of prisoners to contracting COVID-19 infection.

"Among the groups particularly at risk of contracting the virus are people in compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers,” the new joint statement released on June 1, 2020, said. “They are often comprised of people who are suspected of using drugs or being dependent on drugs, people who have engaged in sex work, or children who have been victims of sexual exploitation.”

This statement says these detainees are at higher risk of contracting HIV, tuberculosis and COVID-19 due to “sub-standard living conditions, including massive overcrowding and related challenges in maintaining physical distancing”.

The May 13 statement had flagged the issue of overcrowding in prisons: “Overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19.”

In India, there have been several reports of people in prison contracting COVID-19. Prisoners in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh have reportedly been found positive for COVID-19 infection. Some states have been releasing prisoners on bail to avoid overcrowding, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2020, though experts said this would merely kick the can down the road.

On the issue of those in compulsory detention for drug use, UN agencies had called for their release in 2012 as well, on the ground of their risk of contracting HIV and TB infection. At the time, UN agencies had said that in Asia, around 300,000 people are kept in compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres, where health conditions were sub-standard.

They said there is “no evidence that compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres represent an appropriate and effective environment for the treatment of drug dependence or for the protection and rehabilitation of those detained”.

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