Southeast Asia Speeds Up Prison Releases to Stave Off Coronavirus

Originally published by Zsombor Peter – Voice of America on 20 Apr 2020

Summary

Southeast Asian nations are joining a growing list of countries around the world rushing to release prisoners from overcrowded jails in the hopes of warding off new outbreaks of COVID-19, though some nations are hesitating.

Rights groups and health experts say the crowded cells and threadbare medical wards of many prisons in the region make ideal breeding grounds for the highly contagious coronavirus. Many of those groups have joined the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in calling on countries to release their most at-risk inmates — namely the sick and elderly — to cut the odds of an outbreak. They also suggest prioritizing prisoners nearing the end of their sentences and those convicted or charged with non-violent crimes.

For example, Indonesia started freeing some 30,000 prisoners, about 10% of its prison population, because of the risks of coronavirus in early April. Thailand says it has doubled the pace at which it is granting prisoners early release as well. Myanmar announced it would be freeing nearly 25,000 prisoners, more than a quarter of its prison population, as part of its largest ever annual New Year amnesty.

Unfortunately, other countries in the region are cramming even more people into already overcrowded jails by arresting scores for violating lockdown or curfew rules imposed to stem the spread of the virus. Malaysia, with prisons running at 142% capacity, has arrested thousands of people for breaking movement restrictions over the past month.

The article notes that the Philippines worries rights groups most of all, as they have by some measures the most overcrowded prison system in the world and thousands have been arrested for breaking lockdown and curfew rules since the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, lawmakers and prison officials in the Philippines have expressed support for releasing inmates.