Reduce Prison Populations to Limit COVID-19: Immediately Release Political Prisoners, Pretrial Detainees, High Health Risks

(Bangkok, April 4, 2020) – Myanmar authorities should immediately move to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus by reducing the populations of the country’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 related death on March 31, 2020.

Myanmar’s prison system, made up of 46 prisons and 50 labor camps nationwide, holds an estimated 92,000 prisoners but has an official capacity of only 66,000. Approximately 15 percent of the prison population consists of detainees awaiting trial. Myanmar’s poor healthcare infrastructure, along with other public services, are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus among the general population, let alone in overcrowded prisons. Only 30 doctors and 80 nurses are employed across the entire prison system, according to reports the by Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma).

“Prisoners in Myanmar’s horribly overcrowded and unsanitary prisons and labor camps face health hazards in the best of times, and the prison authorities are ill-equipped to treat those who become sick with COVID-19,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to act immediately to avoid an entirely foreseeable health disaster.”

Myanmar authorities should immediately release people who were unjustly or arbitrarily detained. This includes people held arbitrarily long-term without charge or trial and political prisoners, journalists, and activists. Myanmar has 74 political prisoners serving sentences and an additional 139 detainees being held while facing trial on politically motivated charges, according to the Assistance Association. The authorities should also release those who are in pretrial detention for minor offenses.

The authorities should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, people with disabilities that put them at greater risk of infection, children, low-level and other nonviolent offenders, and people who have served most of their term. Approximately half of the prison population is serving time for drug-related offenses, a percentage that rises up to 80 percent in Kachin and northern Shan States. According to the Assistance Association, most drug-related charges “target drug users and small-time dealers and it is rare that large-scale drug traffickers are arrested or imprisoned.”

“Myanmar authorities should promptly release those who shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place, including critics of the government,” Adams said. “Convicted prisoners most at risk of falling severely ill if they get COVID-19 should be given special consideration for alternatives to detention.”

Myanmar’s largest detention facility, Insein prison, in Yangon, is at more than double capacity, the Assistance Association reported. Their 2018 report estimated that the prison, built for 5,000 people, held 12,392 prisoners in February 2018. Prisoners at Insein prison describe sleeping “shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground,” the magazine Frontier Myanmar reported.

Prisons elsewhere in Myanmar such as in Myingyan, in the Mandalay region, were at almost three times their capacity – holding 2,800 in a prison built for 1,000 people. “Prison capacity across the 93 prisons and prison labor camps is 66,000, putting overcrowding nationwide at over 139 per cent,” the Assistance Association’s 2018 report said.

The Home Affairs Ministry held a meeting to develop measures for reducing the risk of an outbreak in the prisons, but efforts have been severely inadequate, including promoting misinformation about how to prevent the spread of the disease. The wife of a prisoner at Insein prison told Frontier Myanmar that the measures were limited to hand washing and providing ginger water, a false prevention claim that has circulated on social media and was included in the Prison Department’s guidance. She said: “The prison authorities told my husband that ginger water can protect him from coronavirus, so he wants to drink it all the time. He even told me that I should be drinking it.”

The country’s displaced populations also face high risk as an estimated 350,000 people are trapped in overcrowded camps with insufficient food, clean water, sanitation material, and health care. Ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who are effectively denied citizenship and lack freedom of movement, are regularly arrested for attempting to flee the dire conditions in Rakhine State, which commonly carries a two-year prison sentence. The United Nations estimates that 3,000 Rohingya are detained for travel violations. The authorities should release Rohingya adults and children imprisoned for seeking refuge from persecution and arbitrary confinement in Rakhine State.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, on March 25 called on all governments to “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 “rampaging through such … extremely vulnerable populations.”

Specifically, Myanmar’s government should consider alternatives to detention for:

  • People in pretrial detention for low-level or nonviolent offenses, or who don’t present a significant flight risk;
  • People in semi-open facilities who work in the community during the day;
  • People at higher health risk, such as older people, pregnant women and girls, people with disabilities that may place them at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, and people who have compromised immunity or chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and HIV. Assessments should determine whether their health can be protected if they remain in detention, and take into account factors like time served, the gravity of the crime, and the risk their release would represent to the public.
  • People with care-giving responsibilities accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes, including women and girls incarcerated with their children and prisoners who are primary caregivers to children;
  • People convicted of nonviolent crimes close to the end of their sentences; and
  • Other people whose continued detention is unnecessary or disproportionate.

The government has a responsibility to protect and provide medical treatment for detainees who are not released. The authorities should draft comprehensive plans to prevent and respond to a COVID-19 outbreak in detention facilities that do not rely on simple lockdowns but provide measures to protect the physical and mental health of detainees. Prisons should protect inmates and staff while allowing detainees to have access to family and legal counsel.

“Myanmar authorities need to act fast to address prison conditions,” Adams said. “Keeping Myanmar’s jails and prisons full and overcrowded is endangering detainees, staff and could jeopardize the country’s efforts to stop the pandemic’s broader spread.”

For more information, please contact:
In San Francisco, Brad Adams (English): +1-347-463-3531 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @BradMAdams
In Bangkok, Phil Robertson, (English, Thai): +66-85-060-8406 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @Reaproy
In Washington, DC, John Sifton (English): +1-646-479-2499 (mobile); or [email protected]. Twitter: @johnsifton

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