As the world battles the coronavirus and people observe standard operating procedures (SOP’s), prisoners remain vulnerable and at a disadvantage. The Daily Monitor newspaper of March 24th reported that about 30 inmates escaped prison; 20 from Arua government prisons in March and 11 from Bukwo prisons in July. Some of the recaptured inmates said they were scared of being wiped out by the virus as the number in the detention facility is big. The President, while addressing the nation on June 1st 2020 ordered for the release of violators of the COVID-19 regulations as a means to fight against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Uganda, prisons have registered a high number of COVID-19 patients. According to the country’s Ministry of Health, the tests revealed 152 new infections and that the number accounts for half of the most cases reported by the country’s Health Ministry in one day. The large cluster was found through mass testing of inmates at a government prison in Northern Uganda. The number is close to half of the 318 confirmed cases reported by the ministry. According to authorities, the number of inmates has jumped more than 10% since March. There are now 64000 inmates in the system as compared to the 20,000 inmates Uganda’s prisons can comfortably accommodate.
“Lockdown violations accounted for the unusually large increase in inmates. “During the lockdown, people continued committing crimes, but the justice system was at a standstill hence the prisoner population went up,” said Baine, the prison’s spokesperson
This is a large number of inmates for the already congested prison facilities, and it’s evident that the social distancing required by the standard operating procedures is hard to implement. The levels of exposure are higher not only because the virus spreads faster in poorly ventilated places but also because of pre-existing medical conditions that can compromise the health of detainees. The commissioner general of prisons, Johnson Byabashaija, urged the judiciary only to send capital offenders to prison, not the petty offenders. However, while there’s ongoing incarceration of new defendants and communication with prison staff, interactions with the outside world cannot be effectively eliminated.
Steps can be taken to decongest prisons by releasing detainees nearing the end of their sentences as well as conditional release to those in an age group at risk and whose detention is no longer justified. Courts can also suspend the use of police custody and pre-trial detention. Also, alternatives like phone calls can enable prisoners to communicate with their families and friends.
The government and Ministry of Health should increase the capacity for diagnosis and medical monitoring within prisons as requested by WHO and increase protective measures for staff and prisoners with compromised immune systems such as those with HIV or tuberculosis.
Bernice Mulage – CEPIL.