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Covid-19 in jails: Why tracking infected prisoners became necessary

This crisis in prisons points towards the need for prison reforms to ensure the right to life, healthcare and dignity.

Updated 22 May, 2020 12:42pm

Lockdown. The term recently hit its peak popularity on Google trends in late March as Covid-19 began to wreak havoc around the world. Self-isolation became synonymous with imprisonment. Freedom was lost.

But for nearly 11 million people across the world, lockdown has been a part of their everyday lives. For some, it has been that way for decades. We know them as prisoners, inmates, detainees, the incarcerated. Those deprived of liberty, with many of them not even convicted of a crime.

Covid-19 has brought to fore how states have failed in keeping prison systems safe across the globe, even in case of some of the most developed countries. There are at least 115 countries with over-crowded prisons at this point, rendering them even more dangerous by making physical distancing impossible behind bars, leaving the inmates scrambling for sanitation and healthcare.

According to the live global tracker put together by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), Prison Insider, and independent investigator Melanie Carr, as of May 21, more than 46,600 prisoners in 67 countries have been infected with Covid-19 and out of these 839 have lost their lives.

When JPP first started tracking global figures of infected prisoners on April 6, we only came across numbers from 16 countries. At that time, the United States was reporting at least 1,000 infected prisoners, the UK was reporting 88, Pakistan had 49, and India had none. In just over a month and a half, cases among prisoners in the US alone have crossed the 37,000 mark, making the country’s prison system the worst impacted. The UK stands at 435, Pakistan at 384 and India at 400. These are just the numbers reported from official and unofficial sources and it is estimated that the actual numbers inside prisons are much higher, with many countries not divulging any data at all.

These numbers may not be accurate either. But even with the under-reported figures, we know for a fact that the infection rate inside prisons is way higher than that of cities. According to calculations made by JPP, in Lahore’s Camp jail, where Pakistan’s first prisoner was tested positive in March, the infection rate was 19.33/1000 in comparison with 0.09/1000 of Lahore (as of April 15). For Karachi Central Jail, where cases went from 40 to 252 within 24 hours, the infection rate was 71.84/1000, whereas the city's rate was 0.323/1000.

Reports suggest that eight of every 10 patients testing positive in Pakistan in the first week of May were asymptomatic and were only known to have contracted the virus after they were tested. Most of the prisoners who tested positive in Karachi Central Jail also did not exhibit any symptoms, but were detected when mass tests were carried out there. The jail is now conducting 300 tests daily.

On the contrary, Punjab appears to have only conducted about 520 tests in Lahore's Camp Jail after the first prisoner tested positive, resulting in a total of 59 cases in its premises. There are no reports of anymore mass testing in jails in Lahore, Sialkot, Dera Ghazi Khan, Gujranwala, Jhelum, Bhakkar, Faisalabad, Kasur and Hafizabad. All these cities have jails with prisoners that tested positive. There are also reports of one death of a Rawalpindi jail inmate, but with no official acknowledgement or confirmation. The numbers from Punjab jails haven’t changed in more than three weeks, leaving activists wondering about the full scale of the outbreak in prisons.

Without acknowledgement and transparency, there cannot be an adequate response. And without mass testing, we cannot be sure about the extent to which the virus has spread behind bars.

Who makes up the prison population?

When we talk about prisoners, we often imagine a psychopathic villain straight out of a Hollywood movie. Probably in jail for a terrible crime who will go on a rampage as soon as he’s out. But the reality of prisons is quite different. Nearly 70% of Pakistan’s prison population consists of under-trial prisoners who have not been convicted of a crime. Worse, they are imprisoned along with convicted inmates and have to spend years in prison before a verdict in their case is announced. We also have a considerable number of sick, mentally ill and disabled prisoners, with many suffering from contagious diseases like HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, thus having extremely compromised immune systems. Then, there are juveniles, the elderly, and mothers with children. None of these people are a threat to society, and none of them deserve to be rotting inside over-crowded jails and living in unhygienic conditions during such a crisis.

The increased vulnerability of these prisoners during Covid-19 is compounded by the fact that family visits were banned as soon as the virus spread across the country. These visits were the only way for the prisoners to have some contact with their loved ones. This was also the only way for them to easily acquire medicine, soap, clothes, and other necessary supplies needed to survive in their cells. With the visits cancelled, many of these prisoners, particularly ailing ones who require regular medication and care, have been left neglected.

Although a necessary step, the lockdown of prisons has left inmates more frustrated worldwide, with many now rioting and demanding better security measures and alternative solutions. Prisoners are also reportedly inflicting self-harm or are hurting others so they can be put into the usually dreaded solitary confinement. That’s the only way for them to avoid being packed like sardines.

Tracking global numbers

What is the need for collating data of infected prisoners? Advocating for the rights of prisoners, especially vulnerable ones, those under-trial, the young, the elderly, and the sick, during a pandemic has been quite a task for activists. Steps taken for their well-being have been met with much resistance, even by the top court of Pakistan which earlier barred provincial governments from releasing prisoners.

However, it is critical and in the interest of everyone to protect the prisoners, because when one prisoner contracts the virus, they are not only likely to spread it to their community outside the jail through family visits and contact with prison staff, but can also pass it on to paramedics who treat them. Thus, neglecting prisoners at this time will be an added burden on an already collapsing healthcare system battling a virus that can only be eliminated when controlled from spreading.

The global tracker has hence been put together to show that the problem inside prisons is much more serious than what authorities had imagined or anticipated. Looking at the spread of the virus in other jails around the world (and how it was controlled in some places) can help advocates, activists and even governments make informed decisions about protecting prisoners.

When a virus spreads in prisons, it does not discriminate. We know of a Covid-19 positive pregnant prisoner in the US who died after giving birth on a ventilator. We know of a man who spent 44 years in a US prison but died only days before his release. And an 85-year-old prisoner with breathing difficulties who recently died in India. There have also been outbreaks in jails for women and juvenile offenders in multiple countries.

These cases all point towards one thing: the need for prison reforms that must be carried out across the board to ensure that no individual is deprived of their right to healthcare, life and dignity.

As for our prison system, it is simply not equipped to deal with such a crisis. When Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, many assumed that prisoners would remain safe because of their lack of access to the outside world. But many enter and exit prisons on a daily basis, including family members of inmates and prison staff. And all the virus needed was one infected person to be anywhere inside a prison.

This is the time to remember that with no access to proper bedding and washrooms, let alone soap and clean water, the lockdown for prisoners has never been the same as ours.


The tracker's methodology

For the live global tracker, all data for infected prisoners and deaths around the world is first collated from official government sources, such as the ones provided by Canada, Brazil, Chile and South Africa, and then through news reports. In the case of the United States, official numbers are being provided on some states’ official Department of Corrections websites and for federal prisons the Bureau of Prisons website is sharing the information. Figures from other states, a majority of county jails and juvenile detention centres are sourced from news reports.

Official authorities in several countries have not released information on infected prisoners, such as Iran, China and Syria, and the tracker relies on leaked reports for their numbers. Even for official numbers, human rights organisations across the world have raised concerns of under-reporting. The plus(+) sign in front of some of the country's numbers indicates that the actual number might be much higher than what was last reported.

All sources for the figures can be accessed on this public spreadsheet here.


For more information on Covid-19 and prisoners, click here.