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Are Bangladesh’s cramped prisons safe from coronavirus?

  • Published at 05:55 pm March 15th, 2020
There is a severe shortage of health workers in prisons of Bangladesh, with one doctor for every 10,000 inmates Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Prisons across the country have only one doctor for every 10,000 inmates at the moment, making the implications of a coronavirus outbreak worse if it should occur

About 90,000 prisoners are currently being held at 68 prisons across Bangladesh, even though they have the capacity to hold only 41,000 inmates. Such cramped conditions are a veritable wonderland for disease and viral infections, raising the question of what  the authorities are doing to stop the spread of Covid-19 (coronavirus) among prisoners.

Prisons across the country have only one doctor for every 10,000 inmates at the moment, making the implications of a coronavirus outbreak worse if it should occur.

Iran recently took the decision to temporarily release more than 54,000 prisoners who were sentenced to jail terms of less than five years, in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus in overcrowded jails. Dhaka Tribune contacted the prison authorities of Bangladesh to ask if they are contemplating similar measures.

Regarding steps to stop the spread of coronavirus, Additional Inspector General (AIG) of Prisons, Colonel Md Abrar Hossain, said: “New prisoners are being kept isolated for a period before they join the general population. If no trace of the virus is found within 14 days [the incubation period of the virus], they are sent to jail.”

The AIG of prisons further said that prisoners who are already serving time are being checked one by one in every prison of the country.

 “We are using infrared thermal temperature readers to examine if they have a fever. We are providing them to every prison,” he said, adding that they have already asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide more readers as markets are out of stock.

The Department of Prisons has already sent emergency directives to jails across the country and they began taking precautions since the very beginning of the outbreak.

“We are visiting prisons every week, to see if the directives are being followed properly,” Col Abrar said.

He also said the number of visitors allowed to see prisoners at a time had been restricted. 

“Where we allowed 3-4 visitors to meet a prisoner at a time, we are now allowing a maximum of two. They have to follow precautions during the visit, such as washing hands with soap, using sanitizer and not touching the prisoner. Prison guards and other officials also need to wash hands before even touching the lock of the prison,” the AIG prisons said.

In September 2019, Inspector General (IG) of Prisons, Brig Gen AKM Mustafa Kamal Pasha, said 68 jails across the country have only 9 doctors for 141 posts. 

When Col Md Abrar Hossain was asked how they were coping with the low number of health professionals, he said: “We have been lacking in the number of doctors, but more are being provided to the prisons. We are even getting assistance from civil surgeons. They are checking prisoners and giving them instructions.”

The AIG prisons also said plans to release prisoners with minor offences, such as in Iran, had been discussed but are not in the offing at the moment.

“If we receive an order from the government then we will execute it, but releasing prisoners is not a solution for us right now,” he added. 

Col Abrar further said that prisoners were not panicking about the news of coronavirus, as no one infected with the virus had been jailed yet.

He added that the jail authorities had asked the Health Ministry if more precautions needed to be taken.

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