The following blog post is available in German and English. Please scroll down to read the German version. Der folgende Blogbeitrag ist auf Deutsch und Englisch verfügbar. Bitte scrollen Sie nach unten, um die deutsche Version zu lesen.
When COVID-19 hit Austria for the first time in March 2020, closed institutions were not equipped for dealing with large-scale outbreaks of infectious diseases. One year later, it can be concluded that measures like physical distancing and increased hygiene standards are more difficult to comply within these institutions, resulting in significant health risks for persons forced to live in them. Accordingly, detainees, equally those with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, have been in a particularly vulnerable situation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which also applies to persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in detention facilities, establishes that State Parties shall take all possible measures to ‘ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk’, including humanitarian emergencies.
For places of detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, these measures frequently included the suspension of visits by relatives. In Austria, the Ministry of Justice issued a regulation imposing a ban on personal visits after the outbreak of the coronavirus in March 2020. The regulation was adapted two months later so that a detainee could be visited by one person at a time. During these visits, detainees and visitors were separated from each other by a plexiglass pane in order to inhibit a potential transmission of COVID-19. To compensate for the restrictions on visits, facilities were encouraged to actively promote the use of phone and video calls for detainees to stay in touch with their relatives.
As a further measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities, opportunities to temporarily leave the detention facilities (e.g. day or long-term prison leave, with or without staff) were halted or reduced to a minimum. For detainees, however, demonstrating that they can successfully manage periods of temporary leave is a necessary requirement for conditional release. Therefore, suspending this kind of relaxation can deny a detainees’ opportunity to prepare for reintegration and thereby result in an unnecessarily prolonged deprivation of liberty.
To better illustrate these challenges, we are publishing the testimony of a person with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities who has been detained in an Austrian institution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving a voice to the persons directly affected by the significant restrictions in places of detention due to COVID-19 is an important step in understanding their perspective as well as identifying an adequate response to the current crisis and future pandemics. This testimony is part of a series of blog posts analysing the situation of persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities deprived of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In preventive detention during the COVID-19 pandemic
I am 43 years old, and I have been under preventive custodial measure since 2012. I am still in the same institution to which I was initially committed. Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, the days were already long and dull. There were hardly any distractions and little that I could look forward to even then. Only my work in a locksmith’s shop and my parents’ rare visits kept me going.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus came fear. Isolated in a closed facility, I felt like I was slowly choking as the number of COVID-19 cases kept rising. I prayed that none of the guards would bring the virus to work and infect us all. I am not part of the risk group, but I have also heard of cases where young persons had a more severe course of disease.
Most of the information we got came from television programmes. Soon a notice was put up in the unit saying that video calls with relatives would be made available. By then, I had not seen my parents for a long time, and I was desperate: they own neither a computer nor a smartphone. We spoke on the phone more often since I was, of course, very worried that they would get infected. If my parents were not there anymore, I would have no one left in this world. As calling from prison is quite expensive and I can only earn very little, I had no choice but to write long letters to them. That, however, is not the same as a personal conversation. Staying with me the whole time was the fear, fear of an invisible danger.
Later, all therapies and meetings with social workers were suspended as well. Therefore, the only persons I could still speak to were fellow inmates and guards. However, they, were all very irritated by the situation as well and I started to withdraw more and more. At the time, I would have wished for free calls to relatives. Instead, I heard that even those who could theoretically have made use of video calls were only rarely offered the opportunity.
After the lockdown was first lifted, I felt a little calmer. I was able to see my parents a few times, even if it was only one of them at a time. However, soon, visits were banned again. By now, I have resigned myself to the situation. I know that it will be difficult for me to be released in any case; because of the pandemic I will now lose at least another year. The outbreak is nobody’s fault, but I could have been treated differently, even if a large part of society despises me and everyone else under preventive custody measure. We are just “abnormal offenders”, so who cares?
And what remains is fear!
Author: Person with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities under preventive custodial measure in Austria (anonymized: source is known to the Institute). March 2021
Disclaimer: This blog post was written by a person with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities under preventive custodial measure in Austria. The content represents the author’s individual experience and perspective. The opinions stated in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views, overall findings, or conclusions of the project ‘Open Research Behind Closed Doors’.