Chronic overcrowding and underfunding have left prisons around the world vulnerable to being ravaged by coronavirus, criminal justice experts have warned.
The challenges of a record global prison population of 11 million have been brought to light in a report published by Penal Reform International (PRI) which found that 102 countries have prison occupancy levels of more than 110%.
Social distancing and personal infection control are almost impossible in overcrowded settings where poor ventilation and sanitation are likely increase the speed at which the virus spreads.
Florian Irminger, executive director of PRI, said: “Prison systems globally were at crisis point before the coronavirus pandemic. Now prisons across the world are ticking time bombs set to be devastated by this virus because of overcrowding, lack of basic healthcare, limited access to clean water … and inhumane living conditions.”
In Bangladesh 10 doctors serve 68 prisons, while Ghana has two doctors covering 46 prisons with 15,000 inmates.
Overcrowding and inhumane detention conditions are key factors contributing to poor health, said the report, published jointly with the Thailand Institute of Justice. In October 2019, 45 deaths caused by malnutrition and lack of medical care were reported in Bukavu prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which exceeds its capacity by 528%.
There are grave concerns about the impact the pandemic will have on prisons across sub-Saharan Africa, where the full force of Covid-19 is yet to be felt.
Doreen Namyalo Kyazze, PRI’s Africa programme manager in Kampala, said: “It is frankly terrifying to think how Covid-19 will impact on prisons in the region, which are some of the most severely overcrowded in the world and are extremely lacking in healthcare services, as well as the most basic sanitary conditions.
“In some cases, civil society has had to provide vital supplies for prisoners such as soap, basins, water and medicines to meet their basic health needs.”
One female inmate at a Sierra Leone prison told researchers: “We have been deprived of water as there is no tap and the well gets dry. We have to manage with the limited water we have.”
A prison officer at the same facility revealed there were 64 inmates living in a space designed for 18: “Overcrowding is a big challenge in terms of where to keep inmates and how to ensure hygiene and water supply. We have been using offices as cells for inmates, some even share a bed because there is no space.”
Olivia Rope, director of policy at PRI, said only bold, coordinated international action could mitigate the damage of Covid-19 in prisons, where the mortality rate is already up to 50% higher than in the outside world.
“Your life is literally at greater risk when detained … [and] violence in places of detention is increasing, with crisis responses triggering the use of riot squads, which often turn out to be fatal,” she said.
Prisons in more than 100 countries operate above their occupancy rates, with 20 countries at double their capacity limit. “The spread of Covid-19 in some of these prisons could – and in some cases is already – a death sentence”, said Rope.
Pakistan has 10,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 98 confirmed cases in prisons according to Sarah Belal of the Justice Project Pakistan. Both figures are thought to be grossly underestimated due to lack of widespread testing.
The virus has lifted the lid on existing systemic issues, said Belal: “The capacity of our prisons is 63,000 but we have 74,118 prisoners … there is just no way we have the capacity to manage with the number of people that are in our prisons, neither do we have the resources.
“In Punjab alone, before Covid-19 there were 108 vacant posts for medical officers, there is usually one in each prison … 10% of Punjab prisons did not have ambulances, and the rate of tuberculosis and hepatitis was rampant. You are looking at a population that is already extremely vulnerable to dying of an infectious disease like Covid-19.”
The UN assistant secretary general for human rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, has called on states to reduce their prison populations, including by releasing those who are vulnerable to the virus or are low-risk offenders.
Measures have already been taken in some countries that have suffered outbreaks. In France, courts were asked to delay short-term prison sentences, while states including Iran and Kenya opted to release some people from prison early.
In the UK, where the Ministry of Justice confirmed earlier this week that 15 prisoners have died from Covid-19, the government’s temporary release scheme to combat the spread of the virus had to be suspended after six inmates were mistakenly freed. Plans to release 4,000 risk-assessed prisoners within two months of release are due to resume this week.