Despite assurances from the authorities, it appears most prisons around the country are failing to ensure social distancing among prisoners
Mofajjal Hossain (pseudonym) has been practising ayurvedic medicine in Habiganj for over thirty years. In March, he discovered that his medicine stock was almost over. So he set out for Dhaka on a pickup and his nephew accompanied him.
They reached Tongi bazaar area and finished shopping. It was time to return home, the man thought to himself, unaware of what awaited his fate. He eventually returned home, but not until two and a half months later.
The duo, who were waiting for their ride back home was arrested by police on charges of drug smuggling. The next day, they were sent to court. Two days later, they reached Dhaka Central Jail as inmates.
Mofajjal landed in Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj and was put in a small cell with five other inmates.
"I had only 1.5 feet area for me," Mofajjal told this correspondent.
He lived in the cell for fourteen days and was later moved to the ward, where he had to share the room and washroom with around thirty other people. The room was relatively bigger and Mofajjal said that he had 4.5 feet area for himself.
The jail authorities do not provide any mask to the inmates for free. However, the inmates can buy a mask from the canteen. Mofajjal said that he bought one mask from the canteen for Tk10.
Also, as precautionary measure, the jail authority had suspended visitors for the inmates and also barred them from leaving the ward in the day time.
"They would sometimes let me go in the open air because I wore a mask, and let me talk to my wife for five minutes every week," he said.
When TBS reached out to the jail authorities on the precautions taken to protect prisoners from Covid-19, we were presented with a different story.
Brigadier General A K M Mostafa Kamal Pasha, the Inspector General (IG) of Prisons told The Business Standard, "while other countries' could not protect their prisoners from the pandemic, we have tackled it well and none of our inmates is infected. This has been possible as we were prepared with plans."
The jail authority said that they have set up special medical teams and isolation cells inside each jail premises due to the pandemic. Whenever a new inmate arrives, he is placed in one of the isolation cells. The cell is also used for isolating and treating anyone if they show Covid-19 symptoms, they added.
The cells go through a disinfection process every day, the authorities said, adding that the government have provided them with sufficient medical supplies including hand sanitizers, spray machines, thermometers, etc.
The scenario in other jails outside Dhaka is not much better, going by the description of recent inmates. Hakim Ali (pseudonym) was arrested and sent to Bogura Central Jail in April, when the country was observing a general holiday.
Despite having a quarantine cell, the authorities did not put Hakim there and he was sent to the ward directly. Just like Mofajjal, he shared the space with many other people and hygiene facilities amid the pandemic were very low.
Hakim said that he bought a mask for TK80 and a soap for another Tk50.
He said that 170 people are living in the ward and each person has only 1.5 feet area to themselves. The inmates have to stand in queue for food collection, buying necessities from the canteen or using the washroom.
Although prison officials have asked them to maintain social distancing, it is not possible under the circumstances, Hakim added. Hakim further said he was allowed only half a minute of talk-time every week during his imprisonment and also said that the prison authority had instructed them not to tell anyone about it.
Asked about these irregularities, Assistant Inspector General Monzur Hossain said that if the prisoners were facing any problems they should report it to the higher authority. Maintaining social distancing and hygiene is not possible in prisons, yet the Prison Directorate is trying their best, Monzur said.
Talking to The Business Standard, Nasima Begum, chairman of NHRC said, "we have some limitations. Therefore, we cannot visit the jails physically. However, we have instructed the authorities on the health precautions to maintain and monitoring them closely through media information."
The media is not allowed inside the jail premises and hence getting the exact scenario is difficult. As a result, both the media and the human rights watchdog have to depend on the information provided by the jail authorities.
Reports suggest that around 35,000 inmates have been freed from the jails of Bangladesh after they were granted bail by the virtual courts. In addition, another 3,000 were released due to the Covid-19 situation to reduce the density inside the jail.
The holding capacity of prisoners in Dhaka Central Jail is 4590 and till July 5, 2020 there were 8,788 prisoners.
Rashedul Islam, assistant director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) suggested that few inmates – who are in jail for petty crimes – can be released on parole for few months too.
He said that the authorities should allow visitors to meet the inmates but on a limited scale. "Not letting them meet their loved ones for long might be traumatising," he said.
As things are opening on a small scale and visitors do not come in contact with prisoners directly, so visits can resume again. Otherwise, a toll-free number can be introduced for inmates to talk to family, he also said.
"Though the numbers of prisoners have decreased, still a huge number of inmates are living in certain prisons. The authorities should move prisoners from overcrowded prisons to less crowded ones," Rashedul added.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is currently working with detention authorities to survive this pandemic. Simona Cervi, detention team leader ICRC said that in addition to Dhaka jail, another isolation centre is ready in Feni Central Jail and work is on progress at the Kishoreganj District Jail.