EU Ministers Meet on Prison Virus Risks Amid Inmate Releases

(Bloomberg) --

European Union justice ministers met to discuss the best way to manage the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons and detention centers as Europe remains the epicentre of the global coronavirus outbreak with more than 37,000 deaths in Italy, Spain and France.

“We are all facing the same challenges and I am sure that the results of today’s debate will help us deal with this crisis and the consequences it has for the area of justice at European level,” Drazen Bosnjakovic, justice minister of Croatia, said in a statement on Monday following the videoconference.

France, Germany and most recently Britain have begun releasing thousands of inmates nearing the end of their sentences or those that are unwell to try to slow the spread of the pandemic. The Council of Europe earlier Monday urged officials to consider other options to incarceration to reduce overcrowding that will almost inevitably accelerate the spread of the virus.

Some countries are cutting their prison populations through amnesties, home detention, sentence commutation, suspending investigations and execution of sentences, Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights of the 47-member Council of Europe, said in a statement Monday.

“I strongly urge all member states to make use of all available alternatives to detention whenever possible and without discrimination,” said Mijatovic.

U.K. authorities announced over the weekend that as many as 4,000 low-risk prisoners will be freed in England and Wales as coronavirus cases inside prisons climb. Selected inmates with less than two months to serve on their terms will be released and monitored with electronic devices, the Ministry of Justice said in a statement over the weekend.

“This is an unprecedented situation because if coronavirus takes hold in our prisons, the NHS could be overwhelmed and more lives put at risk,” Justice Minister Robert Buckland said in a statement, referring to the U.K’s National Health Service.

About 90 inmates in the U.K. and 15 staff have tested positive for the virus, the ministry said. There are as many as 1,200 inmates in self-isolation, BBC reported on Saturday.

Anyone convicted of violent or sexual offenses won’t be eligible and neither will prisoners jailed for crimes such as coughing in the face of police or stealing protective equipment.

Elsewhere in Europe

  • North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has released about 1,000 inmates to fight the crisis. Prisoners with sentences shorter than 18 months, which were due to end before the end of July, are eligible for the program.
  • French authorities announced last month that they would release about 5,000 prisoners, prioritizing those that are sick from ailments others than coronavirus and those with a month or less on their sentences, according to France Info. The number of French detainees dropped by nearly 9 percent to 66,309 on April 1st from 72,575 two weeks earlier, Agence France-Presse reported.
  • About 40 inmates at Champs-Dollon prison in Geneva on Friday evening refused to go back to their cells, demanding a right to be released because of infection risk, Swiss state broadcaster RTS reported. The prisoners eventually returned to their cells before midnight without further incident.

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