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Unlike U.S., Many Governments Releasing Large Numbers of Prisoners to Reduce Threat of COVID-19

by Matt Clarke

Around the globe, governments are releasing prisoners in an attempt to mitigate the threat of COVID-19-related mass deaths in their jails and prisons. However, Third World countries are far ahead of most of the so-called “advanced” nations. They have released torrents of prisoners compared to a trickle in most Western countries, including the United States—where little is being done to ensure mass incarceration doesn’t become mass interment.



As of this writing, at 85,000, Iran is a leader in the number of prisoners released due to the pandemic. In a January 2020 report to the Human Rights Council, Iran reported holding 189,500 prisoners. Some estimates had put the number of Iranian prisoners at closer to 240,000.

On March 9, 2020, Iran announced it would temporarily release 70,000 prisoners in response to the pandemic. None of them were political prisoners and all were serving sentences of five years or less. Later, the judiciary spokesman said 85,000 prisoners had been released, including “about 50% of the security-related prisoners,” code for political prisoners.

Javaid Rehman, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, urged Iran to release all political prisoners from its “overcrowded and disease-ridden jails” to reduce the threat from the pandemic.

Simultaneous to the releases, Iran has harshly punished prisoners who protested about the risk of infection.



On April 13, 2020, Turkey’s parliament passed a justice reform law that resulted in the release of 45,000 prisoners—some temporarily and others permanently. A second bill to release an additional 45,000 prisoners permanently was passed by parliament. Turkey’s prison population is estimated at 286,000 in a system designed to hold around 150,000, so the release covered about 16% of Turkish prisoners and that will double if the second bill passes. Prisoners held on serious charges, such as terrorism, were excluded from release. However, Turkish prosecutors often charge dissidents, political adversaries, civil rights activists, and journalists and lawyers who oppose the current regime with terrorism. Thus, according to the free speech organization Expression Interrupted, at least 101 journalists remain imprisoned in Turkey.



On April 2, 2020, the Indonesian Justice and Human Rights Ministry passed a decree permitting the release of about 30,000 prisoners serving time for minor offenses or who completed two-thirds of a drug sentence of 10 years or less.

‘‘We will not release prisoners convicted for corruption, illegal logging, terrorism, drug crimes, gross human rights violations, or transactional organized crimes,” said Nugroho, acting head of the country’s prison system.

“We are trying to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in our prison system,” said Nugroho. “The inmates are vulnerable because most of them share a cell. The risk of contagion is high since our jails are overcrowded.”

“They will be given a medical check-up and the wardens will give them instructions. We don’t want them to infect anyone at home,” said Nugroho. “They will have to provide an address and a phone number, Most of them will stay with their family and they will not be allowed to get out of the house.”



Traditionally, Myanmar grants thousands of prisoners amnesty to mark its April New Year’s Day. This year it pardoned about a quarter of its 100,000 prison population that was housed in a prison system designed for 62,000,

“To mark Myanmar New Year, by respecting humanitarian ground and peace in mind of the people, the president pardons 24,896 prisoners from various prisons,” said a statement from the president’s office, adding that the 87 foreigners included in the amnesty would be deported.

As of mid-April, Myanmar had confirmed only 85 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths, but there were fears that the number was much higher and being under-reported due to insufficient availability of testing.

Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said the country’s 76 official political prisoners were expected to be among the released. An unnamed Rohingya activist reported being told that around 1,500 imprisoned Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority, would be released.

There had been growing pressure for the release amid the pandemic and what Human Rights Watch called “horribly overcrowded and unsanitary” jails.



India has over 450,000 prisoners in its jails, about 17% above capacity. Following a March 23, 2020, Supreme Court directive ordering states to consider reducing jail crowding in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands will be temporarily released. The number of releases will vary from state to state, but apparently totals about 10%, around 45,000 prisoners.

According to a 2018 report from the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh had some of India’s most overcrowded jails, holding 104,011 prisoners in a system built for 58,914.

News reports on March 24, 2020, said there were 20 prisoners in the Baghpat jail isolated for suspected COVID-19. That was about 30% of the 68 cases reported in the state five days later.

A March 28, 2020, state government statement announced the release of 11,000 prisoners from 71 jails across the state. The releasees were pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners with sentences of less than seven years. They were released on an eight-week personal recognizance bail.

About 2,500 of the releasees were convicted. None of the 234 political prisoners from Jammu and Kashmir held in the state’s jails were released.

Prior to the announced release of 11,000 prisoners from the 60 prisons throughout Maharashtra, the state held 36,195 prisoners in a system designed for 24,032. Like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra set up a committee to select prisoners to be released, limiting the releasees to those charged with crimes carrying seven years or less and excluding those “charged with serious economic offences, bank scams and offences that come under special Acts.”

Delhi released 419 prisoners on March 28, 2020—356 on interim bail and 63 on eight-week emergency parole. Its Tihar jail is one of the largest in India, with a capacity of 10,000, but holding over 18,000 prisoners. Jail officials announced the pending release of another 3,000 prisoners.

Activist groups have filed court documents seeking additional releases.

Uttarakhand announced the pending release of 855 prisoners from its 11 jails, some of which hold four times the number of prisoners they were designed for. The states of Haryana and Kerala have set up commissions following the high court’s order, but have not yet released any prisoners.



The Philippines released 9,731 of its 136,000 prisoners in response to the pandemic after its Supreme Court ordered the release of pre-trial detainees unable to afford bail. Elderly and ailing convicted prisoners and those serving sentences of less than six months were also released. Many of the country’s jails are filled to five times their capacity and just two jails in the city of Cebu confirmed 348 COVID-19 cases among their 8,000 prisoners as of May 1, 2020. President Rodrigo Duterte launched a bloody crackdown on drug crime in 2016, diving the prison and jail overcrowding.



Thailand announced the release of over 8,000 jail prisoners on April 13, 2020. Pol Cas Naras Savestanan, director-general of the Department of Corrections, said suspended or reduced sentences would be given to qualified prisoners, including those with minor offenses and good behavior. Prisoners convicted of serious crimes or violating the COVID-19-related emergency decree will not be released early.



Afghanistan released over 12,000 prisoners in response to the pandemic. This included over 480 Taliban prisoners released as the result of an agreement with the U.S.



Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair initially told the press that 600 of the country’s 14,000 federal prisoners had been released for pandemic mitigation. He walked that figure back after VICE discovered those prisoners were just routinely-scheduled releases. VICE was only able to identify a single prisoner released due to COVID-19 and that prisoner had filed a lawsuit seeking release. Meanwhile, as of April 29, 2020, 285 Canadian prisoners had confirmed COVID-19 cases and others were complaining of being ill but unable to secure testing.


Other countries

Smaller-scale prisoner releases were announced in Morocco (5,000), Kenya (4,500), Ethiopia (4,011), Egypt (4,000), Bangladesh (3,300), Zimbabwe (2,528), Portugal (1,867), Bahrain (1,800), Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,200), Germany (1,000), Argentina (1,000), Cameroon (1,000), Uganda (833), Albania (600), Israel (500), Benin (400), and Nigeria (100).

Noticeably absent from prisoner-release announcements are most of the “civilized” countries of the West, such as the U.K., France, Italy and Spain and the smaller Western European countries. The world’s chief incarcerator, the U.S., also had a weak showing with only 16 states and the federal system releasing any prisoners from their jails and prisons for pandemic mitigation by mid-April 2020—a total of around 9,400, a tiny percentage of the nation’s approximately 2,300,000 prisoners. In Texas, the governor moved to block local officials in Houston from releasing nonviolent jail prisoners. Sadly, that seems to be a common attitude among American and Western European politicians—leave them locked up and let them die. 



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