Rise in Covid-19 cases across the country prompts concern over already crowded prisonsHundreds of new inmates have entered prisons since the lockdown began on March 24.
As Covid-19 cases continue to surge across the country, Nepal’s overcrowded prisons are increasingly becoming a cause for concern. Though no inmates have yet developed Covid-19 symptoms so far, officials believe that if testing is not conducted and precautionary measures are immediately not taken, the coronavirus could spread like wildfire among prisoners living in close quarters where physical distancing is impossible. And the risk has only increased with the addition of new prisoners since the lockdown began on March 24.
According to Laxmi Prasad Sapkota, jailor at the Central Jail in Sundhara, the jail is capable of accommodating 1,400 inmates but it currently houses over 3,000 prisoners.
“Hundreds of new inmates have been added since the government imposed the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” said Sapkota.
Sapkota said that while new inmates are administered a rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19 before being admitted, none of the existing prisoners have been tested.
According to Sapkota, the prison has built temporary quarantine facilities in case any inmates show symptoms, but that facilities could be inadequate in case of an outbreak. The prison staff don’t have any test kits or personal protective equipment either, he said.
The situation is similar at the Dillibazar prison. According to Sita Adhikari, incharge of the Dillibazar prison, there are over 600 inmates when the prison’s capacity is around 300 inmates.
“Over a dozen new prisoners have been admitted after the lockdown,” said Adhikari. “Although the new inmates are brought in after a RDT test, due to a lack of space, we do not have a quarantine facility, so we have to mix them with other inmates.”
Like the Central Jail and Dillibazar Jail, most prisons across the country are overcrowded, which has increased the risk of a possible outbreak of Covid-19. According to data provided by the Department of Prison Management, a total of 24,227 people are currently serving time in 74 prisons. Out of which, 14,193 are convicted criminals while the remaining 10,034 are awaiting sentence.
“Prisons in Nepal can only hold about 16,000 detainees. The numbers are far higher, which has made prisons more vulnerable to Covid-19 transmission,” said Debarsi Sapkota, information officer for the Department of Prison Management.
So far, Nepal has reported a total of 3,448 confirmed cases with 13 deaths.
The World Health Organisation has warned that prisons around the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from Covid-19 unless they take immediate action, including screening for the disease. The global health body warned of potential widespread infection in prisons, and has released a set of interim guidelines, such as reducing overcrowding and ensuring access to health services, on preparedness, prevention and control of Covid-19 in prisons and other places of detention.
Efforts to control the virus in the wider community will prove unsuccessful unless strict measures, such as adequate testing and increased hygiene procedures, are taken in all places of detention, particularly in overcrowded prisons, according to the WHO.
In late April, the Department of Prison Management had released over 400 prisoners, primarily juveniles, amid growing concerns of possible transmission of Covid-19 in overcrowded prisons. But hundreds more have been added, defeating the purpose of releasing prisoners.
“After the Supreme Court ordered the release of inmates held for minor crimes, hundreds of such detainees were released under Section 155 of the 2017 Criminal Code however,” said Sapkota. “But there has been no significant decrease in the number of inmates.”
After the department directed all prisons across the country to take precautions, prisons, since March 19, have restricted outside visits. The department had also distributed PPE sets along with thermal guns, masks and gloves, according to Director General Pradip Raj Kanel of the Department of Prison Management.
“However, we have not been able to conduct Covid-19 tests due to a lack of resources and funds,” said Kanel. “So far, none of the prisoners seem to have been infected from Covid-19.”
According to Kanel, any outbreak could prove dangerous as most prisons lack space to build quarantine facilities.
“Nepal’s prisons are not equipped to handle a Covid-19 outbreak,” he said.