Coronavirus rears head at Karachi Central Jail

At least 40 inmates and three officials test positive for Covid-19


Raheel Salman May 17, 2020
40 inmates, three officials test positive for Covid-19 PHOTO: MUHAMMAD SAQIB/EXPRESS

KARACHI: Despite the efforts made by prison authorities to prevent an outbreak of the novel coronavirus among the inmates of Sindh's jails, the contagion has made its way to Karachi Central Jail. As many as 40 prisoners and three members of the jail staff have tested positive for Covid-19, it was revealed on Sunday.

Sources at the prison told The Express Tribune that an inmate began displaying symptoms of the infection three days ago. He was immediately tested and diagnosed with the virus, while the prison administration also isolated other inmates housed at the barracks with him, they added.

Samples were taken from the isolated prisoners, too, and many of them tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday. Furthermore, three officials deputed at the barracks were also found to have contracted the infectious disease.

While the senior superintendent of Karachi Central Jail, Muhammad Hassan Sahito, and other officials were also screened, they were found not to be infected.

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The sources further informed The Express Tribune that samples were taken from 400 more prisoners for testing on Saturday, with results expected in a couple of days. Meanwhile, preparations are reportedly underway to test all the inmates detained there.

Bursting at the seams

When the virus made its presence known in Sindh, prison authorities had voiced fears of a catastrophic outbreak in the jails, pointing out that the overcrowding and confined quarters meant that a single infected prisoner could rapidly infected hundreds of other inmates.

In a letter to the Sindh home department, Prisons IG Nusrat Ali Mangan had written that overcrowding at the province's prisons posed an imminent threat and could lead to the spread of the coronavirus in the cells.

There are currently over 16,000 prisoners housed in Sindh's 24 jails - which have an actual capacity of 13,500 inmates. Karachi Central Jail has the highest number of prisoners, holding 3,619 inmates opposed to its capacity of 2,400. The number used to be even higher - there were over 5,000 prisoners at the prison at one point.

After the pandemic hit Sindh, hundreds of inmates were shifted from the jail to prisons in other parts of the province in order to reduce the population held at the Central Jail.

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Jail authorities explained that the decision to transfer the prisoners had been made because the jails in other districts of Sindh had fewer inmates. It has reportedly been a tradition in the past that when a jail became overcrowded, its inmates were shifted to other prisons.

In March, the Sindh government and Prisons IG Nusrat Ali Mangan had also made plans to reduce the sentences of prisoners and release a number of those who had committed minor offences early, while the Sindh High Court, too, had ordered the release of 829 under-trial prisoners.

However, the Supreme Court later set aside this order, directing authorities to re-arrest those who had been released, apart from those accused of minor crimes and those belonging to vulnerable groups such as the elderly, women and children.

Out of the total prisoners in Sindh, 550 face death sentences, around 11,000 are under trial and nearly 500 are foreign citizens. Meanwhile, 148 prisoners are in the juvenile prison, of whom only 12 are convicted while the remaining 136 are under trial.

Precautions

Meanwhile, quarantine centres have been established in all the prisons in Sindh, where all new inmates are quarantined upon intake for up to 14 days. Mangan had earlier also declared it mandatory to provide coronavirus clearance certificates for any new prisoners before they are put in any jails in the province.

Around 200 new inmates enter the province's prisons on a daily basis, with the potential to infect other prisoners who have little contact with the outside world.

Authorities have also restricted the prisoners from meeting anyone, while Sahito previously told The Express Tribune that prisoners and staff at the Central Jail had been provided face masks, wash basins and hand sanitiser.

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