Coronavirus prompts prisoner releases around the world

Iranian state media announced it would temporarily free about 70,000 prisoners to combat the spread of the disease.
Image: Prison guard stands along corridor in Tehran's Evin prison
A prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison.Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters file

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By Adela Suliman, Andy Eckardt and Gabe Joselow

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, some countries are freeing prisoners to stem the spread of the virus in crowded jails or free up space for COVID-19 patients.

Iran have already released 80,000 prisoners, according to official reports. Among them were British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, who was jailed in 2016 on what the United Nations, activists and her family say are trumped-up allegations of trying to overthrow the Iranian regime, and U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, 48, who has been in prison since his 2018 after he was sentenced to 13 years for insulting the country's top leader and displaying a private photo publicly.

The U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, said in a statement that "recent reports indicate that the COVID-19 virus has spread inside Iranian prisons," adding that "overcrowding, poor nutrition and a lack of hygiene" were also causes for concern.

In Poland, some prisoners will be sent home to serve out the rest of their sentences, many monitored by electronic tags, according to Reuters. The Polish Justice Ministry said on its website that its plans could extend to some 12,000 convicts.

Prison visits were canceled in England and Wales this week following instructions for people in Britain to stay home, while plans have been put in place to manage disease outbreaks and staff shortages, according to the government.

The U.K. is also considering whether to make more use of temporary release programs and looking at ways to expand outside accommodation options for thousands of prisoners whose sentences are up and due to be released anyway, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

Such efforts would "alleviate some of the pressures" and “balance the protection of life with the need to protect the public,” he said.

A 66-year-old inmate became the second prisoner to die in Britain after testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, according to the prison service. So far, 19 prisoners in 10 prisons have tested positive.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is being held in a London prison while he fights extradition from Britain to the United States, was denied bail on Wednesday after a judge rejected his lawyer's argument that he should be released because of the pandemic.

Outbreaks have also begun in U.S. jails, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio preparing to release hundreds of inmates this week who he said were in "immediate danger" of contracting the coronavirus. His plans could also extend to the more than 1,000 prisoners incarcerated at the city's Rikers Island jail, according to NBCNewYork.

"Our focus is doing this safely and with the right supervision after release," de Blasio said on Twitter.

The convicted rapist and disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein tested positive for coronavirus while in prison in New York this week, according to the head of the New York state corrections officers union. Weinstein, 68, was sentenced to 23 years in prison on March 11 and remains in isolation.

Conversely, authorities in Moscow and Saudi Arabia have threatened to imprison citizens who fail to self-isolate or flaunt lockdown rules, as governments continue to grapple with the fast-spreading coronavirus.