Nepal’s prisons need to be depopulated

Four Mahottari prison inmates watch television in the room also used for worship. Photo: KIRAN PANDAY/Nepali Times Archive

Even before the current coronavirus scare, Nepal’s overcrowded prisons were hotbeds for infectious diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid and influenza. But public health experts fear that the ease of spread of COVID-19 through breathing and touch could make Nepal’s jails incubators for the virus.

There have been many studies of crowded living conditions, hygiene and violence in Nepal’s prisons, and a coronavirus outbreak there could affect the health of detainees, security staff and through them spread to the general population.

Prisons can be incubators for COVID-19, Nepali Times

“Our prison infrastructure is not properly managed, as a result inmates have to be kept in crammed up places,” admits Sharmila Kumari Sharma, Senior Auxiliary Health Worker at Dilli Bazar prison. “We have regular awareness programs on washing hands and maintaining physical separation, but implementation is difficult. It is so crowded here that even maintaining 1.5m distance is not possible.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published guidelines for preventing and managing the cases of COVID-19 in prisons and detention centres. According to the latest report of the Department of Prison Management (DOPM), there are 24,512 prisoners in Nepal’s jails -- 1,528 of them women, 1,281 foreigners and 91 are dependents. There are 8 juvenile correction centers in Nepal with 847 boys and 23 girls.

Charles Shobraj out of lockup during lockdown?, Deepak Kharel

“Given that COVID-19 thrives on social contact, having crowded jails with people coming in and out is likely to promote transmission into jails, transmission within jails and  'spillover' of infections out of the jails into the community,” says Columbia University epidemiology professor Barun Mathema in an email interview with Nepali Times this week. Even within jails and detention centers it is important to identify the medically vulnerable people, those with chronic conditions like HIV/AIDS respiratory illnesses and cancer. Individuals with these co-morbid conditions may be predisposed to poor COVID-19 clinical outcomes. 

Studies have shown that reducing the number of inmates would lessen the pressure on prisons. Releasing medically vulnerable, nonviolent offenders and people towards the end of their sentence could free up some space in the prisons, and would help in general mitigation goal of slowing the spread of the disease if there is an outbreak. In addition, use of bail, speedy trials, early release and community service could aid in resolving the issue of overcrowding in the prisons and unsanitary conditions – problem that predate who COVID-19.

In fact, the DOPM wrote a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs stating the need for personal protective equipment (PPE), thermal gun, mask, glove, sanitiser and testing kit in prisons and juvenile correction centers. Hospitals in Nepal are in shortage of PPEs and other protective gear, and it seems that for the overstretched government the prison system has the last priority. Unsanitary living conditions in the prisons make the facilities even more vulnerable. 

The Office of Attorney General (OAG) worked on the provisions to reduce the number of prisoners and inmates in juvenile detention centers. Depending on the gravitas of the crime, the concerned authority and the police may release a person from custody. Legally, if the police or adjudicating authority decide it is not necessary to keep a person in detention during the course of an investigation, they may release them on guarantee or bail or recognisance to appear on the given date. 

Says advocate Rabindra Bhattarai: “It is possible to reduce the reduce the number of prisoners in Nepal by one-third from 22,000 to about 7,000, this would make prisoner management and budget easier, as well as reduce the risk of a coronavirus spread.”

The Supreme Court responded positively to a move by Attorney General Agni Kharel to release 13 elderly prisoners in Nepal’s jails and sent the file to the Home Ministry, among them the French-Vietnamese serial killer Charles Shobraj. The Court also decided to exercise the power of case diversion in accordance with the Act Relating to Children-2018 so that juvenile delinquents can be released on recognisance to appear when called by the court on the guarantee of their parent/guardian. 

The decision to pardon or suspend the jail sentence by the OAG is a win-win situation, legal experts say. It would reduce the load on prison management which would, in turn, minimise the risk of COVID-19. However, many inmates are in the prison because they do not have money to pay for bail, and some are not able to pay the fine. 

“It is up to the Home Ministry to make the final decision, but we are sending the list to them,” said the director general of the Jail Administration Department, Pradip Raj Kandel. 

However, there are a lot of questions before the elderly, juveniles or those jailed for non-violent crime are released on bail. How will the inmates or their families get the jail money, how with the district court hearing take place in a lockdown? 

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