As the CoVID-19 pandemic hits the world in full swing, authorities in all countries are taking both precautionary and drastic measures to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. Most of the world has gone into lockdown, travel restrictions are in place, non-emergency work canceled, schools closed, roads blocked, gatherings prohibited and people strictly advised to stay at home and/or adopt hygienic habits like regular washing of hands, social distancing, and the wearing of face masks. Authorities in many countries had gone as far as imposing curfews.
The Philippines went Armageddon-mode with the strong leader declaring a “State of Calamity” while ordering non-compliant citizens to be shot. To be clear, President Rodriguez Duterte was referring to regular law-abiding citizens who dare to scuffle with inadequacies amid the lockdown, not the tens of thousands already incarcerated in overly crowded prisons as a result of his war on drugs. So, what about those inmates and other prisoners around the world? What fate awaits them in the CoVID-19 pandemic? Many countries like the Czech Republic, Italy, Australia, and Cambodia have resorted to suspending face-to-face visits by loved ones of inmates, restricting physical contacts, and some even quarantining new inmates. These policies, though well-intended, have either proven too-little-too- late, and/or not sufficiently productive.
Multiple research sources have suggested that to curb the spread of the Coronavirus, one of the required drastic measures is to decrease prison populations. It is no secret that prisons in most parts of the world are often overcrowded with malnourished inmates, making them conducive environments for diseases and viruses like CoVID-19 to spread. With prison facilities not designed for social distancing, inmates are often cramped up against one another making a virus outbreak all but possible to control.
The United Nations recognizes this threat and on March 25, 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged countries to release prisoners. “CoVID-19 has begun to strike prisons…,” Michelle Bachelet said, seemingly in reference to reports of inmates in China, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the United States having tested positive for CoVID-19. “Authorities should examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable,” she added while stressing the need to free older, sick and/or low-risk inmates.
Understandably, world leaders had already begun with this measure while others were quick to heed the UN’s call and respond accordingly. Afghanistan released 10,000 inmates, the Ethiopian president pardoned 4,011 prisoners, Tunisia released 3,220 inmates within 2 weeks, Canada and Germany released 1,000 inmates each while Sudan released 4,000 prisoners. Iran, a country often criticized by western media as a haven for human rights violation, released over 100,000 prisoners, including a convicted British spy.
Other countries taking the bold step are Kenya, which released 3,837 inmates, and Somalia which pardoned 148 prisoners. The United States is set for releasing tens of thousands of low-risk prisoners, to fight the spread of CoVID-19. On the other hand, Libya has freed over 450 inmates while the King of Bahrain pardoned 901 prisoners.
In Southeast Asia, the most populous country in the ASEAN region has led by example releasing 30,000 prisoners including 53 foreigners. This reduction of Indonesia’s prison population has not only helped to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus but also brought the inmate numbers one step lower and closer to its official capacity of 131,931. At the very least, the lower numbers would ensure better administrative efficiency. However, President Joko Widodo’s wise decision remains to be replicated in other ASEAN countries. Cambodia, for example, is a country with over 36,500 prisoners including pre-trial detainees kept in a total of 28 facilities which is 4.3 times over the official capacity of 8,500. Prey Sar of Phnom Penh is the most popular prison in Cambodia initially designed to accommodate 1,500 inmates but now holds over 8,000. Siem Reap Prison by international standards should house less than 600 inmates but is now flooded with more than 3,000 prisoners and detainees including over 40 foreigners.
Besides the capacity problem, the living conditions in these prisons are dire, unhygienic, and medical services are literally non-existent. Contagious diseases like Scabies and Tuberculosis have been known to spread among prisoners for many years and still do, unchecked. The death of an inmate is a regular occurrence considered unworthy of flinch. In 2015, an Australian inmate died of health complications worsened by scabies. More recently on March 23, 2020, a British inmate died of a heart attack after waiting in Cardiac arrest for over 8 hours for medical attention. Although his death was not a result of contacting CoVID-19, the incident makes it all concerning what would happen in the event of a Coronavirus outbreak. Inmates now fear for their lives in the same way that led to the break-out of over 1,000 inmates from four prisons in Brazil, due to the pandemic panic. In a Columbian prison riot caused by the same fears, 23 people were killed. In Italy under similar circumstances and a prison riot, 80 inmates escaped. And in Buriram, Thailand, 7 inmates had escaped over the same CoVID- 19 fears. Similar prison breaks have been reported in other countries like Venezuela and Syria.
Numerous organizations including Human Rights Watch have called on the Cambodian Authorities to depopulate their detention facilities. “Cambodia’s seriously overcrowded prisons are COVID-19 disaster zones waiting to happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia should speedily release prisoners at greater…,” he added. “The Cambodian government needs to immediately reduce the prison population while undertaking rigorous testing inside prisons to isolate those who are sick,” he continued… “Foreign donors should urge the Cambodian government to abide by international guidance and human rights standards, which would be in the best interest not only of prisoners and prison staff, but also the Cambodian people,” according to the Human Rights Watch website.
With a global pandemic in full swing, a fragile economy, looming debt crisis, and numerous uncertainties, experts have predicted that if Cambodia’s prisons remain overcrowded in dire conditions, the coming health and human rights disaster will inevitably and irreversibly exacerbate the Coronavirus outbreak beyond the prison walls. CoVID-19 is potentially the most devastating pandemic the world has ever faced, and as such, clinched fist dictatorship is less heroic than humanitarianism.
It would be wise for Hun Sen’s administration to rather seize the CoVID-19 pandemic opportunity to be sensible and compassionate by releasing prisoners and detainees – including those serving time for non-violent crimes, those who have served a significant amount of their sentences, vulnerable prisoners like pregnant women and nursing mothers, the old, the ones with pre- existing respiratory illnesses, and foreigners. Of course, it would be great to release political prisoners too but that may be a far-fetched-fantasy for Hun Sen’s advisers.
Sangkran 2020 (Cambodian New Year) is around the corner. Usually, at this time of the year, the Prime Minister does a few goodwill deeds to please his people, including pardoning prisoners. Will he choose the right side of history along with many other leaders like Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo who released 30,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19? Or, will Hun Sen wait for a cocktail of economic and pandemic disasters to force his hand? That remains to be seen.