The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the coronavirus is igniting riots, releases and crackdowns in world’s prisons

An inmate at the Manila City Jail wears a face mask to protect against the coronavirus on March 12. (Ezra Acayan/AFP/Getty Images)
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CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are jailed in crammed cells under unsanitary conditions, fertile ground for the spread of the coronavirus, but many governments have yet to adopt measures that could prevent the pandemic from taking hold there.

Inside many of these poorly maintained prisons, safeguards such as quarantines, social distancing, sanitary items and even proper health training are rare, say human rights groups and prison monitors. And the restrictive measures some detention facilities have taken, such as suspending prison visits, have sparked tensions and even unrest from Latin America to Europe to the Middle East.

Outside the walls, prisoners’ families dread the coming weeks. “It’s a very dark situation for the families,” said Mona Seif, an Egyptian activist whose brother is jailed at Cairo’s notorious Tora prison.

China and South Korea, among the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus, have reported large outbreaks in their prisons. China alone has reportedly had 806 cases in five prisons across three provinces. In Spain, where the virus is spreading rapidly, 37 prison workers nationwide and two inmates have been infected. On Tuesday, Spanish authorities confirmed that a 78-year-old inmate had died; the facility where the prisoner was held is now under quarantine.

Turkey’s government is seeking to fast-track a plan to release as many as 100,000 inmates from its overcrowded facilities, joining Iran and other countries that have freed some of their prisoners in response to the pandemic.

Elsewhere, anger over restrictive measures and anxiety about the coronavirus have led to violence. In Colombia last weekend, nearly two dozen people died in riots that swept the prison system as inmates protested what they called inadequate safeguards against the virus. In Italy, riots erupted in almost 50 prisons this month, leaving 13 inmates dead and 59 guards injured. Authorities said the inmates died of drug overdoses after raiding a prison infirmary.

In the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands of people have been rounded up in recent years in response to political uprisings, terrorism and the growth of conservative Islam, many prisoners are held in densely populated facilities that lack hygienic conditions and sunlight, leaving them susceptible to disease and infections. The majority of these prisons are in Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Human rights groups and U.N. officials are urging Middle Eastern governments to release prisoners from overcrowded facilities. “Generally, if you are in prison in the Middle East, you are in a pretty worse case than other parts of the world,” said Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, referring to the threats posed by the coronavirus.

Such concerns prompted Seif, her mother, aunt and a family friend to stage a rare protest in Cairo last week in front of the government’s cabinet building. Seif’s activist brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, has been imprisoned since September, when small anti-government protests erupted in Cairo and other cities.

 The women clutched a placard that read: “Underestimating coronavirus in prisons puts the lives of inmates, police officers, conscripts and all who work in prisons and their families in danger. Release the prisoners.”

Security forces detained the women overnight at a police station before releasing them on bail. They were charged with inciting a protest, disseminating false news and possession of material disseminating false news.

Europe, Asia and Australia

Some countries are responding aggressively to the threat the virus poses inside their prisons.

After about a dozen cases were reported among inmates and staff members at South Korean correctional facilities, health authorities swiftly quarantined the patients and tested other inmates. A South Korean court released two infected inmates on bail from one prison and ordered them to self-quarantine at their homes.

In Australia’s Northern Territory, authorities this week banned all prison visitors, including volunteers and social workers, and British authorities on Tuesday placed correctional facilities across England and Wales on lockdown, canceling visits and restricting prisoners’ movements. But such tough measures have stoked tensions in nations such as Italy and Germany.

French inmates have grown increasingly alarmed that their welfare is being ignored after the French government ordered a national lockdown last week for those outside prison walls. Prison authorities have reported about 30 incidents of insubordination, most involving inmates refusing to return to crowded cells after daily walks in prison courtyards.

Some European countries are also taking steps to reduce overcrowding. The Italian government adopted a decree that, in part, allows for early supervised release of prisoners with less than 18 months left to serve. Germany, which released 40 inmates in Hamburg who were imprisoned because they could not pay a fine for their crime, has delayed incarceration for those facing sentences of less than three years.

Latin America

In Latin America, many of the inmates have taken matters into their own hands.

Video on social media of the prison riots in Colombia depicted hellish scenes, with inmates lighting fires and screams echoing across courtyards. At least 23 people were killed and more than 80 injured across 10 prisons.

Two weeks ago, as many as 1,000 inmates escaped in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo after prison furloughs were suspended in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Five inmates in Venezuela were fatally shot last week while trying to escape. Riots have also upended prisons in Peru and Chile.

Since the violence, Colombian officials have voiced increasing concern about the deterioration of conditions in the prison system. Brazilian authorities, meanwhile, have mandated the use of surgical masks during inmate transfers and the isolation of potentially infected people.

But critics say such measures will almost certainly be insufficient on a continent that has seen decades of mass incarcerations, with long-neglected prison systems that are afflicted by a lack of sanitation, poor health facilities, mismanagement and gang activity.

Robert Muggah, research director at the Rio de Janeiro-based Igarapé Institute, which tracks violence in Latin America, said the coronavirus “is a ticking time bomb for Latin America’s prisons.”

“Even if steps are taken immediately to improve conditions and secure facilities, we can expect a surge in violent protests in Mexico, Central and South American jails, as well as an uptick in breakouts,” he added. “Short-term palliative measures, while necessary, will not repair years of prison . . . mismanagement.”

Middle East

Some Middle Eastern governments have selectively released prisoners in the face of the pandemic. These include Iran, which is reeling from the region’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak. The country’s judiciary has granted temporary release for 85,000 ­prisoners and ruled that 10,000 of them be granted amnesty, ­including some political prisoners.

Bahrain has released nearly 1,500 prisoners, but activists have declared the action insufficient, as large numbers of political leaders and human rights defenders remain behind bars.

In Israel, the issue of releasing prisoners is unusually complicated because about 4,500 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails, all on security or terrorism-related charges. Israel is considering transferring 500 jailed criminals to house arrest, but such a furlough would not be extended to Palestinian prisoners.

Two of the biggest jailers in the Middle East — Egypt and Syria — have so far made little apparent effort to prevent the virus from spreading in prisons.

In Egyptian prisons, where as many as 60,000 people are said to be jailed, there have been no significant releases or plans announced to mitigate the risk of infection, activists said.

“In Egypt, there are tens of thousands of peaceful dissidents, writers, bloggers, protesters, LGBT people and others in dirty, crowded prisons where they should have never been,” said Amr Magdi, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “The government only released 15 yesterday. This is a joke.”

Egypt has suspended visitation at prisons, but this has only left “families and observers in the dark about what’s going on inside,” Magdi added.

When Mona Seif and her mother went to Tora prison to visit her brother, they carried food, medicine, hand sanitizer, gloves and masks for him but were not allowed in. A security guard finally said he would deliver the supplies himself.

But Seif said they don’t know if he did. “We have zero news about Alaa,” she said.


Syrian detainees released in recent months describe overcrowded cells and appalling conditions. The floors on which men and women sleep are often sticky with blood and feces, they say. When prisoners fall sick, there is little medical help available.

According to observers monitoring Syria’s prison network, no measures have been taken to contain the virus, aside from the suspension of family visits to one civilian prison.

Doctors in one facility say that they are treating patients bearing symptoms of the coronavirus but that there is no way to test them. “Many people are afraid of going to our horrific isolation rooms,” said one doctor. “Even if they show signs of sickness, they don’t dare leave their cell.”

For Sana Mustafa, the coronavirus has shattered what little hope she had of seeing her father, Ali, alive. After eight years of war, more than 100,000 Syrian detainees remain unaccounted for in the packed jails of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“The regime has mastered the art of detention and torture. We know that coronavirus isn’t the worst that could happen to them,” said Mustafa, 28, whose father was seized at the family’s apartment in Damascus in July 2013. “For us, the thing about corona is that it makes it hard to stay hopeful.”

Loveluck reported from London. Miriam Berger in Washington, Terrence McCoy in Rio de Janeiro, Pamela Rolfe in Madrid, James McAuley in Paris, Luisa Beck in Berlin, Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem, Hazem Balousha in Gaza City and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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