US puts federal prisons on lockdown over virus fears

02 Apr 2020 / 07:34 H.

WASHINGTON: The US confined all its federal inmates, nearly 170,000 people, to their cells and wards Wednesday for at least two weeks to prevent an outbreak of new coronavirus, an especially dire concern in the country with the world’s largest prison population.

At least two inmates have died of the Covid-19 illness so far in one Louisiana penitentiary the first on Saturday, and a second on Wednesday, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The bureau said that at least 57 inmates and 37 guards have been infected throughout the 122 federal penitentiaries so far.

Previously, only inmates who had been in contact with infected people were quarantined. Most visits and transfers had also been suspended.

That changed Wednesday. “For a 14-day period, inmates in every institution will be secured in their assigned cells/quarters to decrease the spread of the virus,“ the bureau said in a statement.

Such lockdowns are usually only implemented to quell prison unrest. This time, the move “is based on health concerns, not disruptive inmate behavior,“ the statement said.

It said that, “to the extent practicable,“ inmates would still have access to programs such as education and mental health treatment, while “limited group gathering” would still be allowed to facilitate access to showers and commissary, among other services.

Rights activists strongly criticized the measures. “Solitary confinement is not a solution. Solitary confinement is torture,“ said Scott Hechinger, a New York public defender, on Twitter.

Similar measures taken due to the virus have led to deadly riots in prisons in Italy and Jordan, and escapes in Venezuela and Brazil.

The US has more than 2.2 million people behind bars, more than any other country in the world the vast majority in state penitentiaries or local jails.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, which has now infected more than 209,000 people and killed in excess of 4,600 in the US, there have been calls to reduce the prison population.

Attorney General Bill Barr said Thursday that he supports house arrest for the most vulnerable people in federal prisons, especially the elderly and those at the end of their sentences.

The prison system in the largest US state, California, said Tuesday that it plans to release about 3,500 non-violent inmates. Other US jurisdictions, including the state of New Jersey and some cities, have announced similar measures. -AFP

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