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.

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Bangladesh to release selective prisoners in late April

Originally published by Dhaka Tribune on 17 Apr 2020

Summary

As part of its efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Bangladesh government is considering the release of prisoners who have been jailed for minor offenses or who have completed most of their jail terms.

Specifically, around 800 prisoners who have already served around 20 years of their prison terms will be considered for release. Additionally, jail authorities are also preparing a separate list of prisoners who have been jailed for minor offenses (sentenced to a term of one year or less) or who are facing trial. The number of prisoners in that category is estimated to be around 3,000. The government expects these prisoners to be released by the end of April.

The government decided to make this move after considering the overcrowded situation in most jails in Bangladesh, as overcrowded prisons are vulnerable to the spread of the disease.

As of March, there were about 90,000 prisoners at 68 prisons across Bangladesh, against a capacity of only 41,000 inmates.

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“It’s gonna wipe us out” Prisoners relay COVID-19 fears

Originally published by EyeWitness News on 15 Apr 2020

Summary

Bahamas’ sole prison, the Fox Hill Road facility, has been on lockdown since mid-March after Bahamas recorded its first COVID-19 case. At this time all visitations, commissary and public activities are suspended.

While the prison provides inmates with basic food and water, family and friends typically provide prisoners with funds so that prisoners can order additional or different food and water, personal hygiene items, and other goods. However, because of COVID-19, the public is unable to transfer additional funds to prisoners. Therefore, prisoners with low or no funds are unable to buy additional and sometimes essential food and goods.

In addition, there are allegations from prisoners and their families that even prisoners with funds are not able to access necessary goods because there is low stock at the prison’s commissary. This is particularly problematic for prisoners with special diets or needs.

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In overcrowded cells, Bahrain’s political prisoners fear coronavirus threat

Originally published by Reuters – Aziz El Yaakoubi on 08 Apr 2020

Summary

The article notes that Bahrain has freed some prisoners considered at risk, such as pregnant women, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the 1,500 freed so far exclude individuals jailed on national security grounds. This is unfortunate because Bahrain has sentenced hundreds of opposition politicians, activists, journalists and human rights defenders in mass trials. As a result, rights groups, including Amnesty International, last week jointly called on Bahraini authorities to release those who “peacefully exercised their rights to freedom of expression”, particularly elderly prisoners or those with existing health conditions.

In response, the government said it is “absolutely committed” to protecting those in its prison system, and that it does test the prison population regularly. Other precautionary steps that they have taken include banning family visits. To date, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bahrain’s prisons.

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Asia: Reduce Prison Populations Facing COVID-19

Originally published by Human Rights Watch on 05 Apr 2020

Summary

This article provides a general call for the release of prisoners in Asia, and provides a number of categories of prisoners that this release should apply to. Additionally, this article provides a number of prevention measures that prison authorities should take to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Protecting the Caribbean’s most vulnerable people in the face of COVID-19

Originally published by United Nations News on 31 Mar 2020

Summary

The United Nations (UN) is working with ministries across the Caribbean to identify and develop alternative accessible distance learning methods, for example via television and radio, to ensure that all children have access to quality education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The article discusses how previous humanitarian crises have shown children to be increasingly vulnerable to mistreatment, violence, and exploitation. With temporary school closures occurring across the Caribbean, not all children may have access to effective distance learning.

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En prison, le danger vient de l’extérieur

Originally published by L’Echo on 28 Mar 2020

Summary

This article gives an account of measures undertaken in Belgian prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within facilities, as well as some of the challenges, such as shortages of PPE and difficulties implementing social distancing practices in confinement. It also describes some of the mental health impacts on detainees and societal ramifications of restricting visitations. Finally, the article provides an overview of some of the measures  taken by Government , such as the release of prisoners convicted for certain minor offences. 

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Cameroon Should Protect Prison Population from COVID-19

Originally published by Human Rights Watch on 26 Mar 2020

Summary

Cameroon’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, making social distancing and self isolation challenging to implement. In the wake of the epidemic, Cameroonian authorities are limiting prison visits and asking visitors to wash their hands. However, local lawyers argue that these measures are insufficient and that authorities should release individuals who are in pretrial detention on public safety grounds.

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