Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, people across the globe have been advised by health professionals to practice social distancing. However, prisoners, one of society’s most vulnerable groups, are finding it nearly impossible to do so. Overcrowding, a lack of resources such as gloves and masks, and the unsanitary nature of detention centers are only a few of the issues which make those incarcerated extremely susceptible to COVID-19. We must consider the implications of these issues, not only because prisoners are likely to be sidelined in policies to help tackle the coronavirus but also because this already struggling community is more susceptible than most.
Overcrowded prisons mean that inmates are exposed to other prisoners who may potentially have the coronavirus. In Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, the prison capacity is at over 200%. Similar startling figures can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo; according to MONUSCO, the United Nations organization stabilization mission, Congolese prisons are filled to 432% of their designed occupancy. These living conditions make it both incredibly difficult for prisoners to practice social distancing due to the lack of space and easier for COVID-19 to spread as hundreds of prisoners share a small room at a time.
The ability to manage the outbreak of the coronavirus in prison centers is becoming more difficult due to the shortages of equipment. Testing kits, masks, gloves, and other crucial resources are becoming scarce which means that COVID-19 can go undetected in prisoners for long periods of time, putting thousands in grave danger. This situation is worsened by a lack of sufficient prison workers, given that many are currently in quarantine at home, which increases tensions and stress as inmates are left vulnerable and without proper care.
To help tackle the possible mass outbreak of the coronavirus in detention centers, inmates are no longer allowed to receive visits from their family, friends, and lawyers. For many family members of prisoners, occasional visits were the only window they had to ensure that their loved ones were doing well. Now that has been taken away. As a result, inmates are left confused and anxious about the possibility that they may not see their family for a long period of time, which leads to heightened uncertainty. This can be challenging for the mental health of prisoners who are deprived of emotional support from their families during this daunting period.
So, what is being done to ensure the safety of prisoners?
While there is no unanimous global decision, due to the risk of the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons varying from country to country, some nations have decided to release prisoners. These inmates are usually considered to be at a higher risk of contracting the virus, such as the elderly or prisoners with underlying health conditions. However, there is still an ongoing debate as to which kind of prisoners should be released, including as prisoners who have almost completed their sentences, older prisoners, or inmates who pose a low risk to our society.
These questions act as a delay for the prisoners who have to endure the unsanitary and cramped positions while the authorities decide their fate. As a response to the ongoing worries and concerns surrounding the health of prison inmates, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that in order to tackle outbreaks of the coronavirus, state authorities must adopt a coordination system that “keeps prison staff well informed and guarantees that all human rights in the facilities are respected.”
It is important for us to consider the experiences and wellbeing of prisoners at all times, but now more than ever, due to COVID-19. We must realize that those in prison are people, just like us, and their health rights should not be infringed upon, despite their incarceration. Therefore, policies surrounding how to tackle this virus should take into account the lives and experiences of prisoners, not just because they are highly likely to contract COVID-19, but because they are human.