Twelve dead prisoners

“A group of detainees proceeded to a training and one of them wore a blue chirurgical mask, like in a hospital. From out of her control booth, a warden required him to take it off so that she could see his face. But the other wardens, who were at just a few centimetres from this detainee, insisted he keeps it on. There was an unbelievable tension.” A lawyer tells on Mediapart of her visit to a client in the Fresnes detention centre (France). “The prisoners fear that people bring in the virus from outside.”

There is this paradox when it comes to the situation in prisons. In essence these are centres of confinement. Very well, one could say, at a time when all citizens are urged to stay inside their homes and not go out into public spaces. On the other hand, every confined area enhances the spread of diseases within its walls. And even the more so since – be it in France, Belgium or Italy – the prison systems suffer from a serious and continuous overcrowding, with consequent dubious hygienic situations. In such a context, and aggravated by the year-long policies of budget cuts, in all countries the incidence of health problems in prisons is a multiple of the one outside. More specifically, no judicial or prison system has ever succeeded in dealing adequately with the primary and secondary problems related to illicit drugs that many detainees experience.

On his blog, Luk Vervaet mentions some recent epidemic outbreaks within Belgian prisons:

June 2017, detection of measles in the prison of Gent, followed by the interdiction of visits and of the arrival of new detainees and by the cessation of transport towards the courts. In April 2019 the prison in Mons is struck by what penitentiary authorities and trade unions call “a catastrophe”: an epidemic of bedbugs, that could even spread outside the walls and thus cause a general public health problem. End May 2019, there is an epidemic of measles in the Lantin prison, followed by the week-long isolation of a thousand inmates in their cells, no transfers, no visits by relatives. In July 2019, the women’s prison in Berkendael is touched by the bedbugs epidemic, resulting in a complete lockdown for one month: no visits, no activities, no telephone, no services from the outside. September 2019 a dozen scabies cases are detected in the Arlon prison.

The combination of carceral conditions and the (fear for an) outbreak of COVID-19 seems for now to have had the most dramatic effects in Italy, where twelve deaths in prison are recorded – not due to the SARS-CoV-2 itself. On 8 March  the Italian government decided to suspend not only the prison visits of relatives and volunteers, but also the permissions to leave (for instance to work outside) and the regimes of semilibertà  (half-open prisons). This caused an almost immediate uproar in more than forty detention centres, where detainees asserted that not their family, but prison staff who used to go in and out did carry the virus into the institution. There was some violence, prisoners mounted on the roof in Trappani to claim amnesty or remission of punishment, in Melfi a few agents and sanitary staff were temporarily locked up, and on several locations the prison pharmacies and infirmaries were plundered. The twelve deaths are supposedly all due to the same cause: overdoses or fatal combinations of methadone, benzodiazepines and other drugs. According to prison officials, the uproar caused the destruction of some 600 to 2,000 beds (out of the approximately 50,000 places occupied nowadays by more than 61,000 detainees), thus leading to further overcrowding.

Overpopulation and illicit drugs, these are, I think, the main themes you have to assess when it comes to dealing with the coronacrisis in prison. Just as the famous Swedish hysteric might say: “Thanks to the coronavirus we have lowered CO2 emissions and so contributed to saving the climate”, you might also say “The COVID-19 epidemic is an occasion to reconsider both incarceration policies and the war on drugs users”.

Immediate measures to be taken are obvious: basic precautions, such as elementary hygienic conditions in the cells (water, soap, bleach – not evident in all Belgian prisons) or keeping distance (but how do you keep distance in routine practices as the palpation or search of prisoners before or after visits or recreation?). And also, what with the regular contacts between detainees and police, wardens, social assistants, lawyers and instructors, who all of them are able to introduce the virus within the prison walls? In Belgium a telephone credit of € 20 is promised to every detainee, as compensation for the temporary suspension of actual visits by relatives. And of course, first and foremost, information – information to staff and detainees about measures taken, risks to avoid, situations in and outside the institution.

Depending on the legal and social contexts and possibilities, different countries are trying to reduce temporarily overcrowding in order to minimize the risks of contamination and to make room for the isolation of infected inmates. On 16 March the Italian government seems to have reversed the measures taken a week earlier. Those who are already in a regime of semilibertà and therefore not obliged to return to prison at night, keep that permission till the end of June. Home detention should be allowed to all prisoners who have less than eighteen months to go and comply with some other requirements (no mafia-related offenses, no disciplinary sanctions, etc.) and the use of electronic bracelets, where available, should be extended (alas! the former minister of the Interior, Salvini, had blocked the acquisition of electronic bracelets). But then again, an insider of the Italian prison system tells me that assign into home detention only detainees with eighteen months left would be far from sufficient, since it would affect but about 4,000 prisoners; to be effective at least all those with maximum four years to go should be sent home.

Several other measures are being considered to diminish temporarily the overcrowding. France (more than 70,000 detainees) knows the theoretical possibility of suspending on health grounds the execution of prison sentences of infected people. Remission of penalty or amnesty is a practice that several countries have made use of in the past. In Berlin one considers the (temporary?) release of some two hundred seventy notorious public transport freeriders who serve out a substitute sentence for not paying their fines. And why not release the old, fragile and sick detainees who don’t represent an actual danger for society – assuming of course there is someone outside to take care of them.

A specific role is reserved for the judiciary, if only because all deprivation of liberty has to be submitted at one point or another to a judicial ruling. If nowadays the courts don’t function, what then with the people who are already in pre-trial detention or police custody? More in general, if one wants to avoid prison overcrowding, a fundamental responsibility of the judiciary is to convict less people to prison sentences, and most importantly, to put an end to the widespread abuse of police custody and pre-trial detention (36% of the incarcerated in Belgium) to put suspects under pressure and as an instrument of provisional punishment. The persistence of this kind of primitive repressive reaction is again illustrated in Mediapart, by another French lawyer. She testifies about gilets jaunes being arrested in Paris during a protest march last weekend.

I have seen many prolongations of police custody for really empty records, that in the end led to a dismissal. Police custody took place in cells with six persons, without access to water, without any possibility of washing hands, in extremely complicated sanitary conditions. … A person suffering from Crohn’s disease, who is in a situation of immunodeficiency, has passed at least 24 hours without his treatment. Finally, he has been dismissed without further proceedings. Will the criminal justice system ever succeed in adjusting its reflex of police custody and pre-trial detention, or is this too integrated, like a kind of formatting?

The actual COVID-19 epidemic offers an opportunity to reconsider basically carceral and drugs policies. That people personally want revenge can be absolutely understandable (I myself sometimes dream of it), but is punishment an acceptable instrument for the organisation of society?  And isn’t it about time to leave the idea of a war on the consumers of illicit drugs, and to treat related (social) problems as a matter of public health instead as a criminal or a military problem?