The Prison Authority is obligated to provide phone access to detainees and enable communication with their families and their lawyers. The Ministry of Interior must develop a plan to reinstate visits to prisons after a three months hiatus
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) called on the Ministry of Interior and the Prisons Authority to assume their legal responsibility in providing the simplest forms of human contact in light of the continued suspension of visits for prisoners’ families, consistent with the rights stipulated in the Prison Regulation Law. EIPR demanded that the ministry and the Prisons Authority allow detainees and prisoners to communicate with their families and lawyers on a regular basis by telephone at least in order to assure them of their health and inform them of any changes that may occur to the place and conditions of their detention.
Additionally, EIPR also calls upon the Prison Authority to expand the measures taken to ensure the physical and psychological safety of prisoners, prison staff and places of detention in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
There has been recurring reports of emerging Covid-19 cases among the prisoners inside Tora prison - in relation to which no official statements were issued to deny or confirm while providing clarification of the measures taken . Reports and rumours also mentioned that some prisoners were transferred to places of quarantine outside Tora prison, still with no official response.
Since March 10, that is, more than three months ago, the Ministry of Interior issued a decision suspending all visitations in places of detention as part of a series of measures to tackle the Covid-19 crisis.
Family visits are practically the only way to check on individuals and provide them with the minimum amount of food and medication needed in light of the lack of proper food and nourishment in most places of detention, and to alleviate their suffering from the scarcity of human contact in the case of detainees held in solitary confinement. Visits also allow prisoners and remand detainees to be informed of updates on the current affairs in case books, newspapers and other means of information were denied to them, which has become the accepted reality in many cases of detention.
Despite the decision on phased return to operations in the courts and various government sectors in the past month, the resumption of visits was not alluded to in any of the recent ministerial decisions. This is compounded by the fact that no suitable alternatives to physical contact were provided throughout this period, whether through one of the electronic and digital means of communication or by correspondence through writing and/or telephone as stipulated in article 38 of the Prison Regulation Law. Article 38 of the law stipulates that "subject to the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, every convicted person has the right to correspondence, and telephone communication (...)" "" (...) and for a remand prisoner the same right unless a decision stating otherwise, is issued from the competent Public Prosecution Office or the competent investigative judge. "
However, in light of the persistence of the decision to stop visits for more than three months on account of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, added to the continued invocation of “difficulty in transferring defendants” to trial and renewal sessions by the prison administration, particularly in cases that the Supreme State Security Prosecution is overseeing,,; a complete interruption of communication among detainees and their relatives as well as their legal counsel has been allowed to continue. Against this backdrop; this right framed in article 38 of the Prison Regulation Law acquires double the importance – it has become the only means of obtaining information and communicating with families and loved ones, at least to reassure them about health conditions inside the prison wards.
With the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in the wider community outside of prisons, and what with the increasing official numbers of confirmed infections and deaths updated by the Ministry of Health, along with unfolding details of the plans for the next phase of facing the crisis; it becomes difficult to justify the indefinite continuation of visit suspension without providing other alternative measures. The absence of official information issued by the Ministry of Interior on the numbers of infections and the number of swabs and testing capacity that provide an understanding of the level of transmission and response in prisons; increases the anxiety of prisoners and their families and exacerbates their suffering and isolation from the outside world.
There were a few exceptional known cases in the last few months in which prisoners and detainees, on an exceptional basis, were allowed to correspond or make phone calls based on requests submitted to the prosecution. But this simple and fundamental right provided for and protected in the law must be consistently and continuously provided to all of the prison population. EIPR had submitted to the Supreme State Security Prosecution a request to make a family phone call for remanded colleague Patrick George Zaki, who is held in custody pending case No. 1766/2020 under investigation by Supreme State Security Prosecution. And although the Public Prosecution approved it, the Tora prison administration refused to engage the request up until the time of writing this statement.
In order to ensure the safety of prisoners, detainees, and staff in prisons and other places of detention, as well as their physical and psychological well-being , and to complement the measures taken by the Ministry of the Interior and the Prison Authority earlier in the crisis, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights demands the following:
1- Implementing and generalizing one of the appropriate communication alternatives for visits, whether the ones already prescribed in the law or other electronic alternatives, similar to the alternatives proposed by the Ministry of Justice to conduct court sessions electronically. In the short term and temporarily, it is very much possible to start providing weekly phone calls to each detainee in place of the visits.
2- Regulating the increasingly inflated prices of prison canteen products, especially after the suspension of visits, which was a lifeline for prisoners that provided medicine, fresh and healthy food, and the money needed to buy supplies from the prison canteen.
3- Responding seriously and promptly to complaints or reports from prisoners and staff in connection to the onset of any symptoms of the Covid19 disease.
4- Providing appropriate medical care for the affected cases and improving detention conditions in relation to ventilation and the provision of water and soap in order to reduce the chances of infection spreading inside prisons and places of detention.
5- Periodically announcing the numbers of infections and deaths in prisons and places of detention, in order to provide reassurance for the families of detainees and prisoners.
6- Taking additional measures to reduce the risk of infection spreading in the most crowded prisons by expanding future presidential pardons, in accordance with the conditions legally mandated for the conditional release of prisoners, and including more prisoners from groups most at risk of contracting the Covid-19 and the more vulnerable categories in general: those over the age of sixty, children, pregnant women and mothers providing for newborn children and those up to two years, cancer patients and patients with chronic diseases,, asthma patients and patients of other respiratory diseases, people living with HIV, people with disabilities among other vulnerable categories.
7- Finally, releasing remand prisoners especially those with a known address or place of residence, or the replacement of a remand detention with one of the other precautionary measures stipulated in the Criminal Procedures Law.