Prisoners in the age of pandemic

As the world enters an unprecedented time in its modern history with the COVID-19 pandemic, it will undoubtedly emerge significantly and permanently transformed. While far from its peak, the pandemic has already left its mark on how society and governments function on a fundamental level.

Perhaps nowhere is this most apparent than in prisons.  Prisoners are in a unique and unenviable position of being totally under state control in a way that no other segment of society is, as well as forced into living conditions that are almost designed to facilitate disease transmission. It comes as no surprise then that incarcerated populations experience a higher burden of infectious disease, which coupled with the extremely contagious nature of COVID-19, are the makings of a catastrophe. Not to mention that those over 55 are growing cohort of prisons, who are also considered higher risk for the disease caused by the virus, according to the Marshall Project.  

Recognizing this, governments around the world have taken extraordinary steps, although in vastly different ways.

In Iran, where Germany’s DW reported as being on the precipice of a poorly concealed COVID disaster, 85,000 prisoners were freed – the majority of whom were political prisoners. All in the name of preventing a catastrophic outbreak, or at the least lessening its impact. It begs the question of why these supposed criminals were incarcerated in the first place, how big of a threat to society (or the state) could they possibly be if they can go on “furlough”? Let’s be clear, these are not homicidal maniacs tearing through the streets but are also likely to be prisoners of conscience.

Women mourn the death of family members from COVID-19 in Iran.

Hardly a paragon of human rights, Iran oddly refused to release political prisoners who were sentenced to five or more years, as well as any who were involved in “national security issues”. Two arbitrary conditions that still play to political ends in the midst of what WHO director-general called the greatest public health crisis of our time.

While deep in the throes of disorder, panic and sweeping death to its largely elderly population, Italy meanwhile saw prison riots over measures to contain COVID (such as limiting family visits) that led to the death of 12, during unrest in at least 10 prisons around the country. Surprisingly, most of the deaths were rioters who made their way to the infirmary and overdosed from drugs found in the clinic. In southern Foggia, 50 inmates managed to escape from prison, although very briefly, with 22 of whom having been re-arrested by the next day.

Italy wasn’t the only country that saw a prison escape, in Sao Paulo hundreds of inmates escaped from four prisons, with 174 already recaptured, although Brazilian media claims over 1,000 could be on the loose. The escape was spurred by the government’s decision to cancel temporary exits for inmates, who they feared would bring back the virus with them.

It is only a matter of time when a prison does become a hotbed of COVID transmission, with an officer in the UK already testing positive, leading to the isolation of 4 prisoners as a precaution. This comes after a heavily criticized UK government policy in dealing with the highly contagious virus.

In the US, an ICE employee has also tested positive, adding yet another layer to one of the worst humanitarian crises in US history. Across the US, 15 corrections systems have suspended all visitation, with 37 others restricting visitation to only legal visits. Certain prosecutors nationwide have announced that they are adapting a “cite and release” policy for all crimes that are not considered to pose a threat to the community, in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly virus, according to the Marshall Project. This raises similar questions as before, one that is yet to be adequately answered; if these people’s crimes do not constitute a threat to society, then why would they have been imprisoned in the first place?

Egypt meanwhile, as one would expect given its long and absolutely abhorrent history of abusing prisoners, is gearing itself for yet another humanitarian calamity, thanks to already overcrowded and filthy prison conditions. Thanks to recent freak weather, the poor condition of the prisons only deteriorated according to some reports.

With the rate of transmission climbing in leaps and bounds every day and given the consistently inhumane treatment of prisoners around the world, it comes as no surprise then that prisons are primed to be the next supercenters of COVID outbreaks. This is hardly groundbreaking, considering that the influenza epidemic in San Quentin prison in April and May 1918, which is thought to have claimed 26% of the 1,900 prisoners, is largely believed to be one of the primary epicenters of the 1918-20 pandemic.

The world will not be the same thanks to this pandemic, with certain rituals, habits, and even institutions, changing forever. What remains to be seen is if these changes will be preventative and prophylactic, or reactive and ineffectual, after far too many have died.  

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