KAMPALA – A group of Human Rights activists has called for the release of some prisoners and improvement of medical services in prisons across the country, in order to control the spread of Coronovirus within the detention facilities.
In a joint statement issued by Advocats Sans Frontie`res, Chapter Four, Legal Aid Service Providers Network, Muslim Centre for Justice and Law and National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, the team argued that the threat of spread of COVID19 and low staffing levels within Uganda’s Prisons and congestion is likely to cause tension among inmates, who might end up staging fatal riots.
The activists argued that although Uganda Prisons Services has halted visits to prisoners from members of the public, so as to protect inmates from Coronovirus exposure, this does not in anyway address the issue of crowding within the Prisons.
As of September 2018, the occupancy rate within Uganda Prisons stood at 315.4%
“The signatories to this statement are concerned that official government statements and actions, including the practice direction issued by the Judiciary, have committed to address the issue that prisons and suspects in police cells are the high-risk environment for transmission,” read in part the statement.
The activists argued that there is need by Government to bear in mind that since the staff-prisoner-ratio is estimated at one staff to seven prisoners, as the situation escalates and restrictive measures are imposed, there is a high risk that this will cause tensions and instability in prisons across the country.
The activists noted, “Prisoners will learn of the risks. With the tensions and threats, the low staff-prisoner-ratio will put a severe strain on the management on prisons as prison officers will face unprecedented challenges.”
The cited examples in Columbia and Italy where riots erupted in prisons which resulted in several deaths, amidst fears that the virus would spread and health services would be unable to cope in overcrowded spaces.
The team, therefore, called for steps to cut back the prison’s population in order to respect detainees’ human rights and ensure their access to adequate healthcare.
Among the proposals include release of detainees nearing end of their sentence, detainees charged with petty crimes, as well as those in the age group at the risk or with pre-existing health conditions and whose detention is no longer justified.
Release unlawfully detained prisoners including those detained beyond 48 hours and those who have clicked mandatory bail.
In dialogue with judicial and administrative actors, take steps to suspend use of pre-trial detention of police custody as well as release without bail, detainees prosecuted for minor offences that are punishable by setences of less than two years imprisonment.
In consultation with competent judicial authorities, grant conditional release to convicted prisoners who comply with procedural conditions.
Implement alternatives for prisoners to contact their relatives such as communication at a distance, behind a glass or by video conferencing.
Tighten the monitoring of the sterilisation of the Prisons Units and increase the capacity for diagnosis and medical monitoring within prisons as requested by WHO.
The letter was written and copied to Chief Justice- Bart Katureebe, Director of Public Prosecution, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs- Ephraim Kamuntu, Commissioner General of Prisons- Johnson Byabashaija and Inspector General of Police- Martin Ochola.
The development comes at the time the Ministry of Health just announced 5 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed bringing the total to 23 cases in Uganda.
The Ministry of Health stated that out of 227 samples run yesterday at Uganda Virus Institute, 222 samples tested negative for COVID-19.