Prisoners dread virus outbreak across globe


“It will be a breeding ground for the virus, should it get into any prison,” said Brett Savage, locked inside Kerobokan prison known as ‘Hotel K’ — on the Indonesian island of Bali, where 1,500 prisoners occupy blocks built for 350 people.

Overcrowding, poor ventilation and deficient health, hygiene and sanitation conditions will favour the rapid spread of infectious diseases — making prisons around the world a flashpoint for the new disease.

Prevention measures used in wider society — such as social distancing and frequent hand washing — are often impossible to enforce, leaving authorities with tough choices. And panic is proving especially dangerous inside.

In Thailand unrest led to a group of inmates escaping after rumours a fellow prisoner had tested positive, while 23 died in riots at a Colombian facility amid tensions over the virus.

US jails confined all detainees to their cells, with most visits and transfers cancelled, after dozens were infected with COVID-19, while a string of states have planned to release non-violent prisoners.

Rights groups have warned of a race against time to protect inmates, calling on all countries to relieve the pressure on packed prisons through early release rulings.

Savage, a South African nine years into a 20-year sentence for trafficking crystal meth, described an environment where masks are unavailable for prisoners, contractors are still regularly allowed free access and health advice is non-existent.

Nearly 1,800 people have been infected and 170 have died in Indonesia, but rates of testing are low and experts fear the true figures are far higher in the country of more than 260 million people.

The country has released more than 30,000 inmates, amounting to some 10 per cent of the country’s prison population, and was quick to ban relatives from visiting during the crisis. But even a release on this scale leaves prisons still operating over capacity.

Meanwhile, the Philippines — where prisons cram in up to five times the number of inmates they are built for — has not indicated they will release anyone early, despite calls from international human rights organisations to do so. The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned prisons are likely to see a higher mortality rate from an outbreak because inmates are often already in poor health and care facilities are less efficient than in general society.

Pakistan is already struggling to contain a small cluster of 49 confirmed cases at a Lahore jail, where a prisoner arriving from Italy tested positive in March.

Rabia knows only too well the dangerous health risks posed in Pakistan’s overcrowded prisons. Her son Sajjad, who is serving a sentence in Lahore, is now paraplegic after contracting life-threatening meningitis after poor treatment by prison medical staff.

“I have no idea what condition he’s in, how he is surviving,” said Rabia, unable to visit or contact Sajjad since Pakistan was hit by COVID-19.

In neighbouring Afghanistan, the president ordered 10,000 women, young offenders, critically ill patients and older inmates released to ‘safeguard the health of people’.

So far only a few thousand have been freed. India has already released thousands of inmates, after the Supreme Court advised prisons to free those awaiting trial for crimes with punishments of seven years or less. 

Harsh Mander, a social activist in India, admitted authorities face difficult choices, running the risk of permitting the virus to spread as released prisoners make long journeys home, some to far-flung villages. “There is of course a trade off — there is a question of them carrying the virus. There is no perfect choice here,” he said.