Held in closed quarters where disease can spread quickly, prisoners are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Once inside jails, experts warn, the situation could rapidly spiral out of control.
At least three positive cases have been confirmed in UK prisons and several dozen in US federal, state and local prisons and other European countries. Emergency coronavirus containment measures introduced in Italy sparked prison riots that left more than a dozen dead.
In New York City, 60 inmates and correctional officers have tested positive, according to the city’s corrections department, including at the city’s notorious Rikers jail.
“Prisons are powder kegs ready to blow up,” said Josiah Rich, a Brown University professor of medicine and epidemiology who has provided care for prisoners for years.
Some 11m individuals are estimated to be held in custody across the globe, according to the World Health Organisation, while approximately 30m people worldwide are thought to move between their communities and prisons every year.
Overcrowding, prisoners with pre-existing conditions, and a significant proportion of older inmates — who are most at risk for serious complications from the virus — will test the resilience of prison and justice systems worldwide.
About 16 per cent of the UK’s prison population is aged over 50, while in the US federal system and Italy that proportion rises to 20 and 25 per cent, respectively. Prison populations have been ageing as a consequence of repeat offending and longer sentences, observers say.
Medical experts say the only way to stymie an outbreak is to implement social distancing now by releasing prisoners to decrease their density in jails.
In Iran, authorities have released some 70,000 prisoners. Local authorities across the US, including in New York, California, and Ohio, have begun releasing inmates, focusing on pre-trial detainees, inmates nearing the end of their sentences, and the elderly and infirm.
But Dr Rich said that unless these measures are taken promptly, outbreaks of the coronavirus in prisons would spread rapidly, straining prison and hospital infrastructure.
Disinfectants are available in less than half of European prisons, according to a November 2019 WHO report. The UK Ministry of Justice said it had “robust” contingency plans in place and that adequate supplies of soap and cleaning materials were available.
US public defenders and prisoner advocacy groups have called for sanitary products such as hand sanitisers, typically banned because of its alcohol content, and soap, which prisoners usually have to buy, to be made more readily available. In Arizona, the Department of Corrections on Wednesday announced it would provide soap for free to prisoners.
Resistance to containment measures are also a risk. The riots in Italy left at least 13 dead, according to Patrizio Gonnella, director of prisons NGO Antigone and a sociology professor at Roma Tre University, as the government introduced stricter rules.
Overcrowding compounds the issue, especially in Italy where national occupancy rates average 120 per cent — higher than in other countries at risk of serious coronavirus outbreaks. The Modena and Rieti prisons, where the riots took place, have occupancy rates of 152 and 135 per cent respectively.
France, Belgium and the UK also have severely overcrowded prison systems, according to the World Prison Brief. Calls for the pre-emptive release of prisoners have been made in France, the US and Italy, but figuring who gets out remains a challenge.
The issue is more complicated in the US, where the “extraordinarily decentralised” nature of the penal system makes co-ordinated responses more difficult, according to Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology at George Mason University.
Experts say that one of the easiest vectors for the virus to enter is through visitors and workers, including corrections officers. In response, jails across the US have gone into lockdown, with the federal Bureau of Prisons banning visits from family and lawyers except in limited circumstances.
“We’re in a really bad position. Contagious diseases move remarkably fast in prison,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy organisation. “We have to release people from prison. There’s no other way of looking at it.”
The calls have been echoed by those working inside US jails. “A storm is coming,” the top doctor at Rikers wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
But observers warn that if drastic measures are not taken now, the situation could quickly spiral out of control. “We’re still in time to act and to implement pre-emptive releases and home detention,” said Prof Gonnella, the Italian activist.
“If we don’t, we’ll be forced to admit severely sick inmates to hospital — and we’ll be even more in the tragic dilemma of choosing whether an inmate or somebody else gets a ventilator.”