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The World’s Most Dangerous Coronavirus Lockdowns

As some democracies try to lesson the pandemic’s effect on prison populations, dictatorships around the world are doing the opposite.

By , a visiting fellow at Harvard University.
Female inmates in Brazil
Female inmates gather with babies as they greet visitors in the Pedrinhas prison complex, the largest penitentiary in Maranhão state, Brazil, on Jan. 27, 2015. Mario Tama/Getty Images

A growing number of countries around the world, if they have not done so already, are discussing the possibility of responding to the growing coronavirus pandemic by going into “lockdown,” borrowing a metaphor from the prison system. But the question of how to treat actual prisoners amid the epidemic has mostly slipped from public focus.

A growing number of countries around the world, if they have not done so already, are discussing the possibility of responding to the growing coronavirus pandemic by going into “lockdown,” borrowing a metaphor from the prison system. But the question of how to treat actual prisoners amid the epidemic has mostly slipped from public focus.

Prisons are a humanitarian crisis in the making, given the way inmates often live almost on top of each other, making them highly susceptible to the virus’s spread. Their vulnerability has been highlighted by the infection of certain notorious inmates, including the sex offender Harvey Weinstein in a New York maximum security prison. In Britain, one infected prisoner has already died.

Prisoners have no choice but to rely on their confiners’ mercy. In some places, that mercy has been forthcoming—in others, not.

In democratic countries, such as the United States and those in Western Europe, many governments have already responded by liberating nonviolent and elderly inmates and deferring incarceration for those recently sentenced. By doing so, these countries have likely saved these people’s lives (while also saving the money that would have been spent on their incarceration at a time of general economic crisis).

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Meanwhile, most nondemocratic countries such as Russia—which has the fourth-largest inmate population in the world—have taken a different route. Last week, Russian officials said they would like to cancel an annual prison amnesty, held to celebrate the anniversary of World War II victory day. That would mean keeping 230,000 people, who were supposed to be released, behind bars. The reasoning? According to the deputy director of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, “People are afraid of inmates. They subconsciously think that there are a lot of diseases there in prison, and if they will get out, they will infect everyone.”

Of course, no country has contemplated opening its prison doors and letting everyone out; some inmates will inevitably have to brave the pandemic behind bars. But some democracies have considered how to safeguard inmates’ health. Many countries have started to make medical help more accessible to prisoners; prisons in many U.S. states, for example, have canceled a mandatory copayment for medical treatment.

Some prison administrators have also imposed tightened lockdown measures as a social distancing measure, while also trying to alleviate the adverse effects. On lockdown, inmates are typically permitted no visitors and receive no mail or packages, which are a critical psychological lifeline for many inmates. Inmates in France now receive 40 euros per month to pay for cell phones, and the Netherlands has also increased access to cell phones and internet communication.

Meanwhile, in less democratic countries, medical help for prisoners has increased very little, if at all. Many prisons across the former Soviet Union don’t even have a qualified doctor as a standard part of staff. Inmates under lockdown in these countries are generally given no other options to contact their families, which makes life inside those prisons even more difficult.

One Russian prisoner said, “We have never had access to government medicine [doctors and drugs] here, so we organized our own medical kit that all inmates could use. But resupplying it has become much harder since the lockdown, because packages from outside are stopped.” There is a similar situation with food in Russian prisons. Since the food quality is so poor, inmates often survive on the food sent to them from relatives. Now that all mail has been stopped, food shortages are a very serious concern.

For Islamic State-linked women detained in Syrian prison camps, their biggest problem is not the virus, but the lack of food. “There is no food to buy in stores inside the camp,” one resident said. “Food is now delivered only once in 10 days, and when it happens, those with money buy everything in the store. There is nothing left for others.”

Corruption can be a savior for some prisoners in poorly developed countries. Inmates with money could always compensate for a lack of government services with bribes. But those without money now face life-threatening conditions. In Iraq, where the virus has already spread, inmates have paid prison guards to move them into solitary confinement, away from the general population. Those without means are left in overcrowded cells, where there is often not even enough space to lie down on the floor.

If such hazardous conditions don’t sound sustainable, they’re not. In Iraq, inmates are conducting hunger strikes to protest their treatment and making videos asking the government—or anyone else—for help. Iraqi prison authorities say inmates are also planning a jailbreak. Prisons in Colombia, Chad, and Brazil have already experienced riots and jailbreaks amid the crisis.

Some prisons that haven’t yet experienced these issues are beginning to prepare for them. In Damascus, Syria, they are reinforcing prisons with the help of Russian- and Iranian-sponsored militias. But this will likely not improve the situation. If nothing changes, inmates will become more desperate with time and will rather risk escape than death from the virus. Prison guards will also be less likely to intervene with inmate unrest if they are afraid they’ll get the virus. During earlier prison riots in Russia, HIV-positive inmates have been known to slit their wrists, because prison guards would rather make concessions than come into contact with their blood.

There is only one way for nondemocratic countries to ensure some level of prison system stability in these unstable times. They need to follow the advice of human rights organizations: free some inmates, improve medical treatment, and make lockdown as bearable as possible for prisoners. Even Iran, often considered one of the most repressive regimes, decided to temporarily free 70,000 inmates after being heavily hit with the coronavirus. And so did Bahrain and Sudan. The sooner other countries follow their lead, the better it will be for the inmates—and the safer it will be for their regimes.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

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