<COVID-19>Statement Calling to Cease the Excessive Restriction on Ordinary Visits in Penal Institutions
On April 7, 2020, the Japanese Government declared a State of Emergency over seven prefectures in accordance with the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases Preparedness and Response, defining the novel coronavirus COVID-19 as being subject to the law. The geographic scope was broadened on April 16 to cover the whole nation and later, on May 4, the emergency state was extended until May 31.
Accordingly, the Ministry of Justice made an announcement on the handling of visits in the penal institutions that are located in the Prefectures under Specific Cautions designated among the areas subject to the State of Emergency declaration, stating that visits in these institutions by individuals other than defense counsels, etc. will be suspended in principle, and requesting that visitations to these penal institutions be refrained. Consequently, many penal institutions based in these prefectures have uniformly stopped receiving ordinary visits without checking individual circumstances, which has resulted in a situation comparable to a uniform prohibition of ordinary in-person visits.
The Act on Penal Detention Facilities and the Treatment of Inmates and Detainees requires, as a principle, that visits to an unsentenced person be allowed. Therefore, it is not permitted to enforce a uniform prohibition of visits, which is in fact equivalent to a contact ban, for a long time without taking alternative measures. Additionally, in regard to the treatment of sentenced persons, it is clearly stipulated in the Act that appropriate contact with the outside world is instrumental to their reformation, rehabilitation, and smooth re-integration into society, and that receiving visits from their relatives is a right of the sentenced persons. Thus, for inmates, the freedom of meeting other people including their families is one of their fundamental rights. Therefore, even in consideration of the purpose of infection prevention, the uniform prohibition of the inmates’ freedom of contact with the outside world is an excessive measure.
Given that the spread of novel coronavirus is worrying family members every day and families are naturally concerned about each other’s well-being, the mental burden brought about by this continuing situation should be enormous—a situation where the inmates cannot even see their families at all during the period of the State of Emergency declaration, i.e. for almost one month until May 6, which was even extended further until May 31. Particularly in Japan, unlike in other countries, the “contact by telephone” (transmission by telephone, etc., including videophone , video transmission, etc.) is permitted for only a very small group of sentenced persons. Therefore, their communication with relatives, etc. will be restricted severely over a long period of time unless in-person visits are authorized.
Meanwhile, the Guidelines for Preventing Infection of Novel Coronavirus Infectious Diseases in Correction Facilities dated April 28, 2020, which was formulated by the Task Force for Preventing Infections in Correction Facilities organized in the Ministry of Justice, only provide certain measures for infection prevention and do not require a uniform prohibition of ordinary visits.
Although the maxim consideration needs to be given to infection prevention in order to protect the lives and physical safety of inmates, we believe that the negligent transmission can be prevented to a great extent if the infection prevention measures prescribed in the above guidelines are put into practice. In that case, however, taking account of the staff members’ workload of disinfecting work, etc., it could be debatable whether the number of visits permitted per day is limited. Having said that, if the number of visits are restricted, the authorization of contact by telephone should be considered favorably.
Thus, we call on the Ministry of Justice to disseminate that every penal institution in Japan should not excessively restrict the inmates’ right to contact with the outside world and that the uniform prohibition of ordinary visits should not be undertaken.
In addition, we call on the penal institutions nationwide to approve, while paying the maximum attention to the infection prevention, the ordinary visits taking into account individual circumstances in each case, and to have flexibility to employ alternative means such as contact by telephone in the event of imposing certain restriction on the visitations.
May 7, 2020
Japan Federation of Bar Associations