KUALA LUMPUR - Southeast Asian nations are joining a growing list of countries around the world rushing to release prisoners from overcrowded jails in hopes of warding off new outbreaks of COVID-19, though some are hesitating.
With some of the most congested prison systems in the world, the region has no time to lose, rights groups and health experts say.
"It is a disaster waiting to happen," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
"If you have an outbreak, those facilities are going to be quickly overwhelmed. And those are not facilities that are prepared to handle seriously sick inmates."
Rights groups and health experts alike say the crowded cells and threadbare medical wards of many prisons in the region would make ideal breeding grounds for the highly contagious coronavirus. Many of those groups have joined UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in calling on countries to release their most at-risk inmates — namely the sick and elderly — to cut the odds of an outbreak. They also suggest prioritizing prisoners nearing the end of their sentences and those convicted or charged with non-violent crimes.
"When you have lack of ventilation, when you have lack of access to sanitary conditions, when you have lack of access to hygiene materials, the shower is limited per detainee per week due to the lack of access to clean water ... this increases the risk of people actually acquiring more diseases than would be in the general public. In addition to that you have the very limited containment spaces," said Dr. Ziad Tohme, health in detention adviser for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Asia Pacific region.
Tohme said he has seen rates of tuberculosis, another contagious infection that can affect the respiratory system, up to 100 times higher in some prisons in the region than in the general population.
"So I couldn't even start to image how COVID can spread in such context, in such places of detention," he said.
Countries around the world have caught on to the risks and started releasing some prisoners to ease the congestion in their jails, from Columbia to India and the U.S.
They are now being joined by some countries in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia started freeing some 30,000 prisoners, about 10% of its prison population, because of the risks of coronavirus in early April. Thailand says it has doubled the pace at which it is granting prisoners early release as well. On Friday Myanmar announced it would be freeing nearly 25,000 prisoners, more than a quarter of its prison population, as part of its largest ever annual New Year amnesty.
Indonesia also has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the world at more than 200% capacity according to the UK-based Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, along with Southeast Asia's second-most confirmed COVID-19 cases at 6,760. The institute says jails in Myanmar and Thailand are running at 139% and 145% capacity, respectively. And while the two countries have fewer confirmed coronavirus infections than Indonesia, limited testing — in Myanmar especially — may be leaving many cases undiagnosed.
Other countries in the region are meanwhile cramming even more people into already brimming jails by arresting scores for violating lockdown or curfew rules imposed to stem the spread of the virus. Malaysia, with prisons running at 142% capacity, has arrested thousands of people for breaking movement restrictions over the past month.
But of the countries that have yet to commit to releasing prisoners as a coronavirus-busing tactic, none worry rights groups and health experts more at the moment than the Philippines.
By some measures the country has the most overcrowded prisons in the world, running at an average 464% capacity by the count of the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research. The distinction has much to do with President Rodrigo Duterte's heavy-handed war on drugs. Thousands have also been arrested for breaking new lockdown and curfew rules since the virus outbreak.
"Practicing social distancing is almost impossible in prisons and jails in the Philippines," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, country researcher for Amnesty International.
"Often there's not enough space for people to sleep on a bed, so they're crafting hammocks or taking turns to sleep on the floor."
The recent confirmation of 18 coronavirus cases among inmates and staff at Quezon City jail, perhaps the most notoriously congested prison in the country, is raising fears that an outbreak may be imminent. The country as a whole has the third most confirmed cases in Southeast Asia at 6,459, just behind Indonesia, though limited testing here too may be missing many infections.
Tohme said the Red Cross has been working with the country's prison authorities to set up isolations facilities that could handle hundreds of patients.
"So we are building an individual health care system for the places of detention in that country specifically to be able to respond to a possible outbreak, because this is one of the main concerns in the region," he said.
Lawmakers and prison officials in the Philippines have expressed support for releasing inmates. The Supreme Court was due to rule on a request to do so on Friday, but postponed a decision to give the government time to prepare a report on the measures it was taking to contain the virus in jails.
"There's really no time to lose," said Amnesty International’s Chhoa-Howard. "It's just a ticking kind of time bomb situation."