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Explained: Why several countries are releasing their prisoners amid COVID-19

Prison authorities have been facing difficulties in keeping the virus from spreading behind bars. What makes prisons vulnerable during an epidemic?

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 1, 2020 12:38:22 pm
Explained: Why countries are releasing their prisoners amid COVID-19 Inmates pass the time within their cell block at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho. (AP Photo/File)

Last week, many states in India announced that they would significantly reduce their prison populations by releasing convicts on emergency parole and undertrials on bail, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures.

Around the world, in fact, plans are being made to release prisoners to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Prison authorities have been facing difficulties in keeping the virus from spreading behind bars.

With prison visits and other services curtailed, several countries have witnessed violent prison riots. This month, 25 such clashes took place in prisons in Italy, leading to several deaths.

What makes prisons vulnerable during an epidemic?

On March 15, the European regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO) published an interim guide ‘Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention’.

The document says, “People deprived of their liberty, such as people in prisons and other places of detention, are likely to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak than the general population because of the confined conditions in which they live together for prolonged periods of time. Moreover, experience shows that prisons, jails and similar settings where people are gathered in close proximity may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases within and beyond prisons. Prison health is therefore widely considered as public health.”

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The guide lists the challenges in dealing with COVID-19 in prisons:

– When an infectious pathogen enters a prison or place of detention, there is a risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease at such locations, thus having an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.

– Efforts to control COVID-19 in the community are likely to fail if strong infection prevention and control (IPC) measures, adequate testing, treatment and care are not carried out in prisons and other places of detention as well.

Explained: Why countries are releasing their prisoners amid COVID-19 In some cells in Iran, Egypt, Syria and other countries in the Middle East, prisoners are crammed in by the dozens, with little access to hygiene or medical care. So if one infection gets in, the novel coronavirus could run rampant. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

– In many countries, responsibility for health-care provision in prisons and other places of detention lies with the Ministry of Justice/Internal Affairs. Even if this responsibility is held by the Ministry of Health, coordination and collaboration between health and justice sectors are paramount if the health of people in prisons and other places of detention and the wider community is to be protected.

– People in prisons and other places of detention are already deprived of their liberty and may react differently to further restrictive measures imposed upon them.

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The guide adds, “The very fact of being deprived of liberty generally implies that people in prisons and other places of detention live in close proximity with one another, which is likely to result in a heightened risk of person-to-person and droplet transmission of pathogens like COVID-19. In addition to demographic characteristics, people in prisons typically have a greater underlying burden of disease and worse health conditions than the general population, and frequently face greater exposure to risks such as smoking, poor hygiene and weak immune defence due to stress, poor nutrition, or prevalence of coexisting diseases, such as bloodborne viruses, tuberculosis and drug use disorders.”

In the UK on March 26, an 84-year-old inmate became the first prisoner to die after testing positive for the novel coronavirus. On March 29, the US reported its first COVID-19 death at a prison in the Louisiana state.

As per reports, in many countries, including the US and UK, prison authorities have resorted to cohort the prison population, in which all those who are suspected confirmed cases are gathered into one area.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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