Pandemic and prisons: the powder keg
Human-Kind is under attack. People of all races, colours, countries, religions and social classes stand on a common platform to face the massive onslaught of the coronavirus. While health professionals and other service providers gallantly commit their lives to save those infected, policymakers scramble to frame appropriate strategies; scientists and virologists search for antidotes, and social activists engage in raising awareness about dos and don'ts and struggle to provide much needed support to those who are on the margins of society. In sum, the universal resolve to combat and conquer the virus has united the peoples of the world.
The very nomenclature of the virus—"novel"—shows that the world is dealing with an unknown bug. Fighting an enemy that one knows very little about is a daunting task. However, the collective experience of the world community in dealing with deadly epidemics over centuries provides us with important lessons. The knowledge of countries that were hit by the ongoing pandemic also provide us important insights about the paths that we should tread in trying to contain the spread of the virus and thus its lethal impact.
In these trying times, conducting tests, maintaining physical distance with other individuals, using soap and hand-cleansers and keeping premises in hygienic order are the principal codes of conduct that every individual and institutions should adhere to. Unfortunately, if there is one single institution that cannot match even the rudimentary levels of the code, it is the prisons. This problem is systemic and persists in almost all countries of the world, rich and poor.
Past epidemics have taught the valuable lesson that prisons and detention centres could be the hotbeds for the spread of contagious diseases. After looking at the potential spread of the coronavirus in locked establishments weeks ago, Richard Coker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that as many as 60 percent of prisoners could become infected with the virus. "It's an existing health nightmare and then you add a pandemic that requires social distance and sanitation—it's a powder keg", Coker bemoans.
Coker was referring to the UK experience. It does not require much imagination to surmise the devastating impact that coronavirus is likely to have on Bangladeshi prisons, many of which are in a state of disrepair and infested with rats and cockroaches. Days ago, acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam, narrating his experience of Keraniganj prison, the most modern penal facility of the country, wrote: "The "Ilish file" or "kechki file" (jailspeak for the way prisoners are stacked like sardines to ensure maximum fit in overcrowded cells) I had been introduced to in prison, involved physical contact of an extreme kind. It was a daily occurrence in Keranigaj jail".
A little more than a week ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made a fervent plea to the states for releasing older detainees who are sick and low risk offenders. She observed that the virus has begun to strike prisons and detention centres. Unhygienic conditions, inadequate or almost non-existent health services and impossibility of ensuring physical distancing and self isolation all constitute fertile grounds for spread of the virus, she noted. Another UN report maintained that people in prisons tend to have poorer health, including chronic conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19. A Health and Social Care Committee of UK Parliament (2018) finds mortality rates of people in prison is 50 percent higher than general populations, reflecting their poor health.
Inadequate health care for prisoners is contrary to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which provides that everyone has a "right to the highest attained standard of physical and mental health". The UN Nelson Mandela Rules explicitly states that those in prison are entitled to the same standard of care as is provided outside the prison.
Another stark warning came from the World Health Organization (WHO). In a guideline published on March 23, the health body noted that the world can "expect huge mortality rates" from Covid-19 unless immediate actions are taken. WHO warns that efforts to stem the virus flow to the wider community will fail unless strict measures to stop infection are taken in all places of detention. The organisation provides a dire warning that in a worst case scenario, Covid-19 "is going to be exploding in the prisons" and "will be a security issue".
Events in Brazil, Colombia and Italy corroborated these concerns. In Brazil, 1,400 prisoners escaped from four semi-open prisons; in Colombia, prison riots led to the death of 23 inmates and in Italy, unrest in 23 detention facilities led to 12 deaths. All these were triggered by the fear of coronavirus.
In order to stave off the outbreak of the disease in detention facilities, releasing prisoners has been the single most important strategy pursued by a host of states. A little more than a week ago, facing a massive eruption of the virus, Iran announced the release of 85,000 of its 190,000 prison population. Ten thousand of the cohort will be granted pardons. Those released were serving sentences less than five years. "Health of prisoners is important, regardless of their status as security prisoner or regular prisoner", announced a senior functionary of the state.
Turkey has announced new legislation that would halve the sentence of inmates except those convicted for terrorism, narcotics and sex offences, and except repeat offenders. Another measure taken was sending some inmates to spend one-fifth of their sentences in supervised release. The enactment of this law would lead to the release of almost one-third of 310,000 prison inmates of the country.
In the US, the Attorney General announced the release of at-risk inmates to home confinement for the remainder of their sentences. It will include those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly. The state and local authorities in the US have also developed strategies to release prisoners with minimal crimes. Thousands of inmates in various states, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes and nearing the end of their terms, have been released. Germany also announced release of prisoners who have served most of their terms, excluding sex offenders and violent inmates.
Early this month, the Bangladesh government announced it was considering releasing on bail some 3,000 prisoners, including those under trial and jailed for bailable offences, to lower the chances of coronavirus transmission in crowded jails. "It's still at a discussion level", noted the Home Minister.
Public health experts apprehend that many prisoners might contract coronavirus in densely congested jails with unhealthy and unhygienic living conditions. Prison directorate sources inform that against the capacity of 41,244, there are around 89,000 prisoners in 68 jails across the country. The health services available in the prisons are atrocious; there is only one doctor for a staggering number of 10,000 inmates. In September 2019, the Inspector General of Prisons informed the media that there are "9 doctors for 141 posts".It was further reported that there are only five thermal scanners for 68 detention facilities.
Such dire conditions in the country's prison system demand that decisive actions should be taken to reduce the number of prisoners in this health emergency. The laws of the land empower the authorities to commute or suspend convictions to release prisoners. The criteria to qualify for bail or presidential pardon is a matter to be worked out by the competent authorities. By taking cue from other countries, those in the high risk category (having specific health conditions), those above the age of 65 (excluding the sex offenders and those convicted of violent crimes), those who have been convicted of non-violent offences or minor infractions, those who have been sentenced to imprisonment for two years or less, and those who have served most of the term of their conviction (say 75 percent of the total period) should be considered for release.
In Bangladesh, a major blot in the criminal justice system is that thousands remain incarcerated for long periods before their conviction, some even before they are charged. In those instances, an accused who has served two year terms should also be considered for release. Another important category for release should be the prisoners of conscience (those incarcerated for expressing their opinion and political beliefs) and the women prisoners.
The time has come for those in charge of prison administration in Bangladesh to move beyond the much needed introduction of infra-red thermal thermometers, restricting visiting hours, physically distancing new inmates and allowing inmates to make phone calls to their loved ones once a week. The release of 3,000 prisoners, though a paltry sum, is a good start. An unequivocal commitment to stop the spread of coronavirus requires an urgent release of substantial numbers of prisoners, perhaps to the tune of tens of thousands, as was done in Iran and Turkey.
Extraordinary times demand bold, decisive and quick actions. It is true that the crisis is taking a huge toll on national resources but in confronting it, the authorities should not abandon those who are behind bars. Those at the helm of the state should realise that in all likelihood, prisons will amplify and enhance coronavirus transmission beyond the confines of their walls and even a rumour of spread of the virus in prisons may trigger violence, posing major security challenges. And finally, it is incumbent on national leaders to ensure that "jail sentences should not potentially become death sentences".
C R Abrar is an academic. He is a founding member of the Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights.