Prison overcrowding: Inmates fear contracting Covid-19 | Sunday Observer

Prison overcrowding: Inmates fear contracting Covid-19

15 November, 2020

The fear of Covid-19 has gripped the country’s prison system. At least 174 inmates were reported to have contracted the virus in prisons across the country by Friday night. A majority of the cases were reported from the Welikada Prison while others were from the Old Bogambara prison.

As the number of inmates infected with Covid-19 rose this week the situation even led to a group of inmates staging a protest on the roof of the Old Bogambara prison demanding the health authorities to carry out PCR tests on inmates.

According to the Commissioner of Prisons (Administration), Chandana Ekanayake around 50 inmates had taken part in the protest on Friday (12). At the time at least 23 of its inmates had tested positive for Covid- 19. Earlier, two prison guards and 43 inmates of the prison were also found to be infected with the virus. The protest ended after inmates were assured they would be subjected to PCR tests.

Covid-19 cases in the Bomgambara Prison were identified after prison authorities had taken steps to direct several prison guards and detainees to undergo PCR examination after it was confirmed that an inmate of the Dumbara Prison was infected with the virus. Those identified as Covid positive at the Bogambara Prison and Dumbara Bogambara Prison have been referred to the Welisara and Teldeniya Covid-19 Treatment Hospital.

However, according to activists, inmates in prisons around the country are now worried about contracting the killer-virus due to the conditions within the prisons which force prisoners to be in close proximity to each other. According to the Chairman of the Committee to Protect the Rights of Prisoners, Attorney at Law Senaka Perera if the proposals submitted to control the spread of virus in prisons on March 16 had been implemented it would have been possible to mitigate the impact.

At the time the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of Prisoners had proposed measures to the overcrowding in prisons to prevent a mass Covid-19 outbreak detainees who could not pay fines and those who were incarcerated for minor offenses should be released subject to conditions. The committee had also pointed out to authorities the legal provisions for the release of detainees who are elderly and seriously ill. “We urge government officials to treat prisoners as human beings and to work to eradicate Covid-19 from prisons just as they work to prevent the spread of the virus in the society”.

However, the authorities have now stepped up measures to address the situation. The media had recently reported that the Attorney General had instructed the Acting Inspector General of Police to grant bail to the suspects who are currently in remand custody and to file charges against the other suspects to reduce overcrowding.

Officials from the Department of Prisons and the Health Ministry held crucial talks this week on the containment of the virus within prisons in the country. According to sources containment measures were discussed at the meeting as the virus has now spread to inmates at the Welikada, Bogambara, and Kuruwita prisons.

As the concerns about the spread of Covid-19 within the prison system grows Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya said a Covid-19 prevention committee has been set up to combat the issue. The committee will comprise Commissioner of Prisons (Administration) Chandana Ekanayake, Deputy Director of Prison Health Services Hemantha Ranasinghe, Commissioner of Prisons K.A.S Kodituwakku, Assistant Superintendent of Prisons Prasad Prematilake and Chief Jailor of the Welikada Prison Premawansha.

According to Upuldeniya, the committee will be tasked with preventing the further spread of Covid in the Welikada prison, Colombo remand prison, Welikada prison women’s section and the old Bogambara prison.

He also said the committee will be expected to ensure that all prison officers and inmates testing positive are hospitalised and look into the welfare of their families. “They will also have to provide quick solutions to any issue relating to the Covid-19 situation in prisons,” he added. According to the Commissioner General of Prisons, nearly 9500 PCR tests have been carried out in prisons affected by Covid 19. “Around 7,000 tests were done in the three prisons in Colombo” he said adding that it was revealed that four prison officials, 90 female inmates and 69 male inmates have been infected with the virus.

To prevent the spread of the virus the Prisons Department on Friday also instructed Colombo prison officials to stay in their official quarters for two weeks. Accordingly, no officer in Welikada, Welikada Women section, Colombo Remand and Magazine Prisons will be allowed to leave the prison.

Steps have also been taken to transfer the Covid-19 infected inmates who were treated at the Welikada Prison Hospital to the Kandakadu Treatment Center.

According to officials, a decision has been taken to send corona-infected detainees to Kandakadu or Gallella treatment centers while female inmates will be sent to the Welikanda treatment center.

The Department of Prisons has decided to admit inmates who are being sent for quarantine at the vacant Welikada Prison Hospital. Meanwhile, 25 prison officers have been quarantined at the Angunakolapelessa prison quarters.