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Prisoners across globe, including in India, forgotten during Covid-19: Amnesty

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Human rights group Amnesty International has said prisoners globally, including in India, have been forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic as prisons face systemic challenges in preventing the virus spread. In a report released on Thursday, the group said the pandemic control measures in prisons led to serious human rights violations.

The report added India was among the countries, where measures such as video conferencing were introduced for prisoners to stay in touch with their families on the Supreme Court’s directions during the lockdown introduced to check the Covid-19 spread. But it added the measures were inadequate. It cited a source in Jammu and Kashmir and said detainees there “were only allowed a phone call to their family once in 15 days.”

Also Read | India records 35,871 new Covid-19 cases, highest daily spike this year

Amnesty International halted its work in India last year blaming an “incessant witch-hunt” after the government froze its bank accounts and forced the group to lay off its staff in the country.

In the report, the group said even though prisoners have been released due to the pandemic in places like India, but the rates of releases remained ad hoc and insufficient to address the magnitude of the risk. “In India, prison staff were included among front-line workers, one of three priority categories for vaccination. Prisoners were not listed among the priority groups…”

It referred to measures in prisons after the national lockdown was announced in India on March 24 and added prison departments across the country barred all personal physical meetings inside prisons. The group said there were plans to shift meetings with lawyers and family members to phones or video calls after a Supreme Court order required all higher courts to adopt video conferencing technologies. “Just as there were problems with the introduction of video conferencing in courts, the roll-out of video conferencing in prisons to allow detainees to communicate with family members was very slow. In the state of Karnataka, for instance, it only became operational in December 2020. In Haryana, it was not until February 2021 that officials announced that the first prison in the state had introduced a video conferencing facility. The duration of video calls was very limited. In Karnataka, for instance, it was reportedly between five and 10 minutes,” it said

The group said India was also among 40 countries, where protests and unrest were reported from the prisons.

Also Read | Over 150% rise in Covid cases in 70 districts, states asked to boost testing

It urged countries not to discriminate against those held in detention when developing vaccination policies and plans. “… urges states to make every effort to prioritize prisoners in their national vaccination plans, particularly given that their confined conditions do not allow them to physically distance and ensure that those at particularly high risk of COVID-19 (such as older prisoners and those with chronic health conditions) are prioritized for vaccination on a par with comparative groups in the general population,” it said.

The report titled “Forgotten Behind Bars: Covid-19” said over an estimated 11 million people are imprisoned globally and prisons in many countries risk becoming hotbeds for the disease. It added many inmates struggle to access soap, proper sanitation, or personal protective equipment. The report said physical distancing is difficult to achieve and only limited health care is available.

“As COVID-19 continues to rip through prisons across the world, measures introduced by governments to prevent the spread of the disease have led to human rights violations, including the use of excessive solitary confinement to aid social distancing and inadequate measures to reduce the detrimental effects of isolation,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director.

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