As the second wave of the pandemic wreaks havoc across the country, prisons are no exception. Despite stringent measures adopted by the jail administrations, the number of infections in Sindh's overcrowded jails have multiplied within weeks. Beginning December, there were only 31 active cases in the provincial jails but by Sunday the number of infections had soared to 295.
Over 1,800 prisoners are packed in Sindh's jails, which have a total capacity of around 1,300. In Karachi Central Jail alone there are some 4,500 prisoners and over 5,000 are incarcerated in Malir district jail. The former has a total capacity of 2,400 prisoners, while the latter was meant to house 1,800 prisoners.
When the pandemic reared its head earlier this year, there were widespread fears that it would wreak havoc in Sindh's prisons too. Given that they were filled to the brim many worried that the infection would spread like wildfire.
However, jail authorities acted fast - standard operating procedures were put in place, all fresh admissions were kept in isolation for 14 days, masks and sanitisers were provided to all inmates - and for a brief period, particularly during the second wave, it appeared that the risk had been averted.
But within weeks the contagion has spread. As many as 207 inmates at Karachi Central Jail have tested positive for the virus. Malir district jail has 78 active cases while five prisoners in Ghotki district jail, four inmates at the Youth Offenders Industrial School and one in Shikarpur district jail have tested positive for the virus.
Moreover, at least one prison official of the Youth Offenders Industrial School and two jail officials at the Malir district jail are currently infected with the coronavirus.
To avoid the spread of infection in jails, the prisons' administrations had earlier attempted to reduce overcrowding in jails by releasing some of the inmates. Inmates implicated in petty crimes were released on bail while those who were at the end of their sentence were released six months earlier than the jail term awarded to them.
Once again, the prisons' administration has decided to release inmates in hopes of curbing the spread of infection and make social distancing measures more effective.
As many as 387 foreign prisoners are to be released from Sindh's jails and the authorities have accelerated their efforts to expedite the process.
The prisons' administration has contacted the ministry of foreign affairs and as many as 120 Indian prisoners have been granted access to counsels. As the neighbouring country has consented to the return of these inmates as well, they will soon be sent back to India.
As for the infected prisoners, they have been placed in separate barracks, away from the rest of the inmates. According to Jail Superintendent Muhammad Hassan Sahito, the diet of prisoners suffering from the coronavirus is being regulated as per doctors' advice.
Every incoming prisoner is being screened and tested for the coronavirus, added Sahito. He told that the new admissions are also quarantined in an isolation ward for at least three days before they are sent to the barracks.
Earlier, at least 54 infected prisoners were released from jail. The prison administration had also restricted the link of prisoners with the outside world with inmates being permitted to meet their families only once in 10 days.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2020.