by Ainsley Ash
MAIN PHOTO: A montage of the faces of political prisoners being held in Egypt where a campaign is under way to secure their release in the face of the risk posed by coronavirus. Source @BowdyT
Prison authorities across the world are facing a coronavirus crisis in their institutions.
For many detention centres, confined spaces and limited access to hygiene and health care make it nearly impossible to practice the World Health Organization’s recommendations on social distancing and increased sanitation measures. The result is that inmates and correctional staff are at high risk of transmission of the virus which has already found its way into detention centres around the world. In some countries, prisoners are being released to reduce the threat of an even greater crisis.
In New York City, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, Riker’s Island prison is facing what Ross MacDonald, chief medical officer of New York City’s correctional health service, called, “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes”. As of Wednesday, more than 280 inmates and 440 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. This is a 6.6 percent infection rate, which is seven times higher than that of New York City, Newsweek reports. An inmate who was held on a technical parole violation has died after testing positive for Covid-19.
Amid calls from activists and public health officials, over 1,000 inmates who were being held on technical violations of their parole have been released. A New York Post report suggested that at least one of them has been rearrested for robbery. The Legal Aid Society in New York City has asked for the specific release of 105 inmates “due to their unique vulnerability to complications from COVID-19”. “Many have release dates that are only weeks away,” their statement read. “Given the exponential spread of the virus, this could mean the difference between life and death.”
CNN reports that in Chicago, at least 251 detainees and 150 staff members at Cook County Jail have tested positive for coronavirus. One detainee who tested positive for the virus had died, and at least 22 detainees had been hospitalized.
Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle described the situation in prisons as ‘a petri dish’ for the virus.
Authorities are also having to deal with outbreaks of violent protest in prisons as inmates become infected, according to the CNN report.
In Iran, thousands of prisoners have been temporarily released, most non-violent offenders serving short prison sentences, Al Jazeera reports. Among these, about 70,000 are believed to be those arrested during anti-government protests.
The release decision has been met with strong opposition. Violent protests have erupted throughout the country, resulting in the death of 36 prisoners, according to Amnesty International.
Across the African continent, countries have begun to address the issue. At the end of March, Ethopian President Sahle-Work Zewde granted pardon to more than 4,000 prisoners who had been jailed for minor crimes or were nearing the end of their sentence. In Ghana, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo has granted amnesty to 808 prisoners, 783 of whom were first time offenders, Business Insider reports.
Among those seeking release from prison are some high profile inmates who are hoping for a personal reprieve. Julian Assange, the Australian-born Wikileaks publisher, is currently being held at a London prison. His bid for release was rejected by a judge on the grounds that there were no records of infections in the prison – but since then at least one person there has died of the disease.
Australian parliamentarians have petitioned for his release, arguing that he is a nonviolent prisoner with a chronic health condition, the Washington Times reports.
In the US, convicted rapist and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein contracted the virus at a facility in New York, but is said to have survived the virus, according to Reuters.
South Africa has reported its first coronavirus cases in prisons last week after an East London correctional worker became ill, according to News24. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases has started a screening and testing program at prisons across the country.
South African prisons are chronically overcrowded, raising concerns for the spread of the virus, There are already high rates of TB in the prisons, especially the Multi-Drug Resistant strain (MDR-TB), another disease spread by close contact with a carrier. As of March 2019, 37 percent of South Africa’s prisons were overcrowded, according to Business Live.