Six steps the Prison Authority should take immediately in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

As the coronavirus spreads globally, the pandemic raises formidable challenges for prison administrations and governments. If – or rather, when – the virus gets into prisons, it will be nearly impossible to stop it from spreading rapidly on the inside. Measures of social distancing are impossible to implement in a prison environment, especially in prisons as overcrowded as Egyptian prisons are. Prisons will thus become accelerators of the epidemic, driving the number of infections up both on the inside and on the outside. Even if visits are suspended, prison personnel continue to go inside prisons after having been in contact with people outside, and it’s only a matter of time until the virus starts spreading inside prisons. That is, if the virus hadn’t already started spreading in prisons before visits were suspended. 

There have been calls, in Egypt and in other countries, to release some prisoners to temper the effect of the epidemic, especially the elderly and vulnerable. This is a necessary step, but it’s not the only one. Previous experiences of crises, in Egypt and other countries, suggest that there are steps to take – and things to avoid – in order to ensure that the crisis does not lead to preventable deaths, riots, or violence in prisons.

Here are six steps the Egyptian prison administration should take immediately to avoid a dramatic situation for prisoners and staff. 

1)Release the most vulnerable prisoners 

People over the age of 60 and people with health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, are at much higher risk of death if they contract the coronavirus. The Prison Authority should immediately start releasing the most vulnerable prisoners to reduce the toll of the virus on these most at-risk populations. Every year in Egypt, hundreds of prisoners are released by presidential pardon; this tool could be used to release all prisoners over the age of 60 and those with serious health conditions. Further, to reduce overcrowding and slow down the spread of the virus inside and outside prisons, the judiciary should order the release of pre-trial detainees who comply with the legal conditions for bail (known address, no risk of interfering with the investigation). 

Some countries like Iran, Jordan, and the United States have already released thousands of prisoners in an effort to contain the epidemic. In Iran, these measures were taken only after the epidemic spread inside prisons and have not been sufficient to allow the authorities to provide the necessary treatment to those who need it. It’s imperative to start releasing people now.

2)Suspend the entry of new prisoners

One of the primary ways in which the virus can start spreading inside prisons is through newly incarcerated individuals coming from the outside. With the suspension of court hearings, all new transfers to prison should also be suspended.

3)Maintain communication channels with the outside

Like other countries, Egypt has suspended visits from relatives to prisoners over fears of the virus spreading. While this may help reduce the chances of contagion, it must be accompanied by measures to maintain communication channels open between prisoners and their loved ones. In the United States, prisons that have suspended visitation have offered every prisoner free phone calls to family members every day. There has never been a more urgent time for the Egyptian authorities to install phone lines in prisons so that prisoners can communicate with their loved ones. Alternatively, prisons should consider allowing visits through glass windows as a temporary measure. In any case, prisoners should be allowed to send and receive written mail at least on a weekly basis. In Italy, the suspension of visitations without providing prisoners with alternative means of communicating with their families has sparked violent riots that led to the deaths of at least 12 inmates.

4)Provide soap, disinfectant, face masks, and access to water

Given that international health authorities recommend, as a preventative measure, that everyone wash their hands with soap and water frequently, prison administrations should ensure that every prisoner and every staff member has regular access to soap and water to wash their hands. The Prison Authority should also provide prisoners with disinfectant, alcohol-based solutions, and face masks to slow down the spread of the virus. Studies show that Egyptian prisons lack hygiene and cleanliness, which negatively impacts prisoners’ health. In light of the global pandemic, prison administrations must guarantee adequate hygienic conditions, starting with supplying sufficient soap and disinfectant to all. The Prison Authority should provide these items for free. If necessary, it can rely on charities and religious institutions for donations.

5)Ensure prisoners continue receiving sufficient food 

In the context of an epidemic, the prison administration might try to reduce the staff working at the prison and supplies of meals and food at the canteen might be affected. It is imperative that the prison authorities keep serving sufficient quantities of food and maintain the canteens open. They should also allow relatives to leave food for their loved ones, even if visits are suspended. During the 2011 protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak, prison guards retreated to the towers and in some prisons, stopped providing food to inmates and sometimes shut down the water supply. When prisoners came out of their cell blocks to demand food and water, they were shot and at least 100 prisoners were killed. To avoid a repetition of this dramatic situation, prison authorities should commit to continuing to provide inmates with food in sufficient quantities, as well as access to additional food through the canteen and family donations. 

6)Get ready to treat the sick

Prisons must immediately start isolating any prisoner or staff member presenting symptoms of coronavirus and test them. They also need to ensure that they have the required equipment on-site, especially ventilation machines, insufficient numbers. Health experts have said that 20-30% of those infected with the virus develop respiratory distress symptoms and need hospitalization. The Prison Authority should pledge to transfer any patient diagnosed with coronavirus and needing hospitalization to an outside hospital for treatment. 

Right now, the government should be doing everything in its power to avoid preventable deaths and violence inside prisons and to ensure that prisons do not act as accelerators of the epidemic. The Prison Authority should release the most vulnerable prisoners, reduce overcrowding, guarantee a communication channel with the outside, provide soap and face masks to all prisoners and staff, continue providing food in adequate quantities, and have the required medical supplies ready. Without these measures, the risk is high that the virus will spread rapidly among prisoners and staff (and thus accelerate the epidemic in Egypt), that prisons won’t be able to provide treatment to those who need it, people who could have been treated will die, and riots are likely to erupt and trigger violent responses from guards. This scenario has happened before in times of crisis. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Mirette Moenes 

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