COVID-19

In the prisons, "the situation is still controllable, but we must act quickly"

Experts warn of the health and safety threat posed by the spread of coronavirus in correctional facilities.

In the prisons,

"The coronavirus is invading Roumieh. It is a disaster similar to that of the port. Stop negligence," reads this sign brandished by a relative of a detainee in Roumieh, during a sit-in observed in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut on Monday to call for a general amnesty law. Anwar Amro/AFP

Panic is spreading in the Roumieh prison where 13 cases of coronavirus infections were detected this past weekend among the inmates and nine others among the guards. Concern also reached the families of the prisoners who observed a sit-in in front of the Beirut Palace of Justice on Monday, calling for the adoption of a general amnesty law on "humanitarian and non-political grounds." They warned of "an explosion in the prisons, similar to that of the Beirut Port on August 4," in case coronavirus-linked deaths occur.

Lebanon is not the only country to have recorded cases of Covid-19 infection in its prisons. To date, some 200,000 cases have been reported in prisons in Italy, France, Britain, Iran, the Philippines, among other countries, including nearly 2,200 deaths, according to international figures.

"We knew that the coronavirus would potentially enter Lebanon's prisons, but we had to be prepared and take appropriate measures," said Suzanne Jabbour, executive director of Restart (Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture) and vice-chair of the UN Sub-committee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT). "Already in March, Restart presented to the relevant authorities a document on measures for the prevention of coronavirus in prisons and detention centers," she told L'Orient-Le Jour." Unfortunately, outgoing Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi then considered that he had taken "all the necessary measures." This has not been the case, according to Jabbour, who pointed out that "the state has only reinforced restrictive measures, even prohibiting civil society associations from accessing prisons, without creating alternatives – an online platform as an example – which would allow prisoners to get in touch with their lawyers, psychologists, doctors, etc."

The Covid-19 pandemic has only "further highlighted the lack of medical care in the penitentiary sector and the failure of the criminal justice system to reduce overcrowding in prisons, which remains the most dangerous problem and should have been a priority," Jabbour said. "The response plan for Covid-19 in prisons should have been part of the national pandemic response plan," she added. "But prison institutions were excluded."

State of health emergency
Jabbour once again sounded the alarm, stressing the priority that must be given to this issue, as well as the need to rehabilitate centers and hospitals to accommodate inmates who may have contracted the virus.

Contacted by OLJ, a security source assured that an isolation center at Roumieh prison has been set up in cooperation with the health ministry, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the regional office of the World Health Organization. The source said inmates, who have been infected with the coronavirus, are isolated there and that another building in Roumieh has been also equipped for the same purpose. The source also said that the government-run hospital in Dahr el-Bachek has been rehabilitated to receive potential patients, while departments in several other government hospitals are being prepared.

According to the same source, one of the 13 detainees was hospitalized for 24 hours, "but he returned to Roumieh and his condition is stable."

Jabbour called for declaring "a state of health, legal and security emergency in prisons" and warned that "there will be another disaster if there are coronavirus-related deaths among the prisoners."

This is what Omar Nachabe, a specialist in prisons in Lebanon and author of three books on this issue, also fears. "If a prisoner dies of the coronavirus, it will cause insecurity in several regions," Nachabe said. "Families will not stand idly by while their loved ones are incarcerated and many of them are serving a few years in prison."

The detection of coronavirus cases in the prison "will create confusion," he said. "The prisoners will be afraid to die, which will make them create problems, especially since they have nothing left to lose," he added. "The problem needs to be dealt with quickly. The immediate goal is to reduce overcrowding in the prisons, knowing that the general amnesty law is certainly not the solution. On the other hand, those arrested who are awaiting trial and who are, according to the constitution, innocent until proven guilty should be released.

In addition, a field hospital should be set up in prison yards equipped with ventilators and a team of specialists. Finally, prisoners whose health is already fragile must be placed in isolation to protect them from the virus, while the hygienic conditions of the prisons, which are catastrophic, must be improved." Nachabe however assured that "the situation is still controllable, but we have to act quickly to prevent it from deteriorating."

The president of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, also called for combating prison overcrowding, saying that justice should speed up certain releases, except for particularly serious crimes or crimes related to "terrorism." In an interview with AFP, Khalaf called on the authorities to issue "special pardons," especially for the sick prisoners. "The virus inside the Roumieh prison is tantamount to a humanitarian time bomb that no one is able to handle," he said.


Panic is spreading in the Roumieh prison where 13 cases of coronavirus infections were detected this past weekend among the inmates and nine others among the guards. Concern also reached the families of the prisoners who observed a sit-in in front of the Beirut Palace of Justice on Monday, calling for the adoption of a general amnesty law on "humanitarian and non-political grounds." They...

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