Coronavirus crisis inside prisons
To this day, Covid-19 has infected at least 30 millions and has claimed the lives of more than 960,000 people throughout the world. While it is capable of affecting anyone, a certain group has been identified to be more vulnerable in numerous studies as they are likely to develop severe complications at some point. Those who are elderly, suffering from health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS fall within this group including many others.
An article of ALJAZEERA revealed that people on an average can suffer from three to four chronic health conditions which may require them to be on up to seven medications by the age of 50. Reports published by the World Health Organization reveal that in an isolated setting deprived of proper health care facilities, prisoners are more likely to be carriers of these conditions. In fact, experts fear that at least half of the current global prisoners suffer from at least one of these chronic health conditions.
Globally, draconian laws criminalizing non-criminal activities and practices that promote imprisonment, including pretrial detention, have brought about an unacceptably high global prison population currently measured at 11M. Due to the thousands of arrests for breaches of curfews, quarantines, and other preventative measures undertaken by the governments during the period of pandemic, it is expected that there is going to be an exponential increase in the number within a short period.
With the prisons of 125 countries in the world being overcrowded, if we think practically, it is nearly impossible to disinfect the surfaces, maintain social distance, and provide safety equipment such as a mask, hand-sanitizer to every prisoner in the world during this challenging hour. These factors make prisons a breeding ground for Covid-19.
Despite the increased vulnerability, the relevant authorities around the world have failed miserably to take actions to mitigate the risk of prisoners contacting the Covid-19. For instance, it was noted by Amnesty International that in Cambodia at least 25 prisoners sleep on the floor of a single small cell. In regards to the UK, Dr Christopher Kay from Loughborough University in a recently published report wrote that the inaction of their government following the first reported case from a prison to this point has caused many unnecessary deaths within its population.
Human Rights Watch reported that the prisons in Egypt are filled with coronavirus cases and nothing is being done for them by the government. They also found that more than 20,000 prisoners and 6,400 correctional staff tested positive for the virus in the US with over 300 deaths. They have further noted that Bangladesh has approximately 90,000 prisoners across all the jails in the country. This is three times the capacity of the jails where they are being held. Similar concerns have been raised by various organizations and individuals about the conditions in almost all the countries of the world.
At this point, it is important to note that when we talk about prisoners, we are not only talking about those against whom the allegations have been proven before an impartial court, but also about millions of those around the world who are still waiting to have their day in court, many of whom have been arrested only to fulfill personal or political objectives. In some countries, the number of prisoners waiting for trial is as high as 70 or 80 per cent.
What makes it worse is the disturbing evidence of routine torture of these prisoners in many countries of the world brought to light by various trusted news platforms at different times.
The problem with keeping them in such a life-threatening setting in this crucial time is not solely limited to their personal safety. Many of them already have and will complete their term in jail during this pandemic and on release they will most definitely meet a lot of people on a regular basis.
If proper steps are not taken now to contain the spread of the virus within prisons, it is imperative that this will accelerate the emergence of the second and third waves of the virus globally, resulting in prolonged lock-down measures that will undoubtedly come as a fatal blow to the already devastated global economy.
Furthermore, Mr. David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender's office in New York City, rightly stated that "by keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus and the demand for hospital beds, ventilators and other lifesaving resources".
Under these circumstances, it is advised by many experts (Martha Hurley, Timothy Williams, Benjamin Weiser, and William K. Rashbaum) and international organisations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, UNESCO) that governments take proper steps to avoid new custodial arrest unless the people in question are capable of posing a serious threat to others.
Governments must respond fast to achieve the required decreases in prison and jail populations, setting priorities to release as eligible of those detained for minor offences, those near the completion of their term, those incarcerated for technical breaches of probation or parole, children detained, the aged and otherwise clinically fragile, caregivers of vulnerable persons, detainees not convicted, and detainees kept in pretrial custody unless they pose a significant and immediate danger to others.
To date, only 580,000 prisoners (5 percent) of the global prison population have been permitted to be released but the harsh reality is that not many countries have taken adequate steps to fulfill their promise although this bare minimum could have been achieved with the tiniest amount of effort, keeping in mind that this step could potentially save many innocent lives.
For instance, in early April an announcement was made by the Justice Ministry authorities in the UK that up to 4,000 prisoners would be qualified for release, however by May only 57 had been released. In Indonesia, as of July, the prisons had about 234,000 inmates equaling to 176 percent of its total capacity despite releasing 36,000. In Bangladesh, the authorised number is fewer than 3000.
Barrister Faran Md Araf is a Lecturer and Programme team member of the LCLS (South), Dhaka, Shahir Ahmed is an LLB (Hons) Graduate from BPP University, UK, Arin Rahman is pursuing B.Sc. in Information and Communication Engineering from Bangladesh University of Professionals, Arafat Reza is employed as a Teaching Assistant at the LCLS (South), Dhaka