In Depth

Coronavirus: what should prisons do?

Jail conditions make disease control impractical, and many countries are releasing inmates to avoid mass coronavirus infections

As the coronavirus pandemic strains societies around the world, the fate of the incarcerated has become an increasingly contentious issue.

Prison populations are particularly at risk from infectious diseases. While they are isolated from the world outside, that containment is far from complete.

Staff and inmates come and go, and once the disease is inside, the close quarters, vulnerable population and lower hygiene standards means infection spreads rapidly, with devastating effects.

Panic is also a danger. The prospect of Covid-19 running rampant has already led to violent uprisings in jails in a number of countries - add to this staffing shortages caused by the illness, and prison authorities are understably on a crisis footing.

The situation in prisons now

As of Tuesday in the UK, 1,250 prisoners and 8,500 staff were self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, and last week an 84-year-old man became the first prisoner in the UK to die after contracting Covid-19.

The latest Ministry of Justice figures, released on Monday, reveal that 55 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus in 21 English and Welsh prisons - the availability of testing, however, is limited.

“We are managing a huge risk, and the measures taken don’t completely mitigate against the risk,” Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, told the Daily Express yesterday.

“Sometimes the risk can even be too big to manage and we’re moving into unknown territory. We are expecting to see significant staff shortfall. We just don’t know if we will have the staff,” she said.

As far as prisoners are concerned, all non-essential transfers have been postponed, and inmates who have tested positive will be isolated alongside their cell-mates, even if those cell-mates are asymptomatic, according to government guidelines published on Tuesday. Prison visits have also been suspended.

According to The Guardian, authorities have implemented a policy of “cohorting”, whereby all prisoners showing symptoms will be sent to an isolation wing. With a scarcity of tests to confirm the presence of Covid-19, this raises the prospect “that inmates with conventional flu symptoms risk contracting the more serious coronavirus”, says the newspaper.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland confirmed yesterday that pregnant prisoners could be released temporarily under licence conditions, but there are currently no plans to release low-risk prisoners.

This is not the case in Northern Ireland, where almost 200 people incarcerated for less severe crimes who are entering the last three months of their sentences will be released in response to a staffing crisis that has seen 20% of prison workers call in sick, according to the BBC.

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Prison systems around the world in crisis

In America - the country with the world’s largest incarcerated population - inmates are already being released, and calls are growing to release more.

“Hundreds of Covid-19 diagnoses have been confirmed at local, state and federal correctional facilities - almost certainly an undercount, leading to hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers and demands for more protection from prison employee unions,” The New York Times reports.

David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City, said: “By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus.” Pointing out that prisoners will take up valuable life-saving resources in hospitals, he said: “They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”

Recently convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein has contracted the coronavirus in prison and, in New York, Rikers Island inmates are being paid $6 an hour to dig mass graves. The prison’s chief physician has taken to Twitter to decry the “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes”.

Hard-hit Italy has seen some of the worst prison violence as the new coronavirus has savaged the country. Last month, 16 prisoners in Foggia escaped following an insurrection and, in Modena and Rome, a total of 12 died of drug overdoses after gaining access to the prison pharmacy in the violence.

“The immediate cause of the Italian riots appeared to be the decision by authorities to halt family visits for two weeks,” reports The Telegraph. “While prison guards inside the jails were suppressing unrest, officers standing outside in riot gear faced down inmates’ family members as they demanded access to loved ones.”

And in a Montpellier prison in Villeneuve-les-Maguelones, southern France, 31 detainees have filed a complaint against the government for failing to protect them against the outbreak.

In recent weeks, prison authorities in Iran have temporarily released as many as 100,000 prisoners - roughly two thirds of its incarcerated population - in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

Some political prisoners have been transferred to an unknown location, while those who are left fear for their lives in a country with over 3,000 deaths from the novel virus and almost 50,000 confirmed cases.

“Around 20 prisoners were killed on March 30 and 31 during disturbances in two prisons in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province,” reports Radio Farda.

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