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U.N. Calls For Countries To Reduce Prison Populations

Inmates point from inside the La Modelo facility in Bogotá, Colombia, on Sunday. Violence broke out in the prison out of inmates' fears that prison guards are not doing enough to prevent coronavirus inside overcrowded prisons.
Ivan Valencia

The U.N. is calling for countries to reduce the number of people in detention, saying that "physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible."

U.N. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet says authorities should look for ways to release people in detention who are especially vulnerable to the disease, such as those who are elderly or who have health issues. She says they should also consider releasing low-risk offenders.

"Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views," Bachelet said.

In the U.S., federal and state facilities are taking some measures to limit the spread of the virus, such as suspending social visits or doing extra screening of new inmates, as NPR's Martin Kaste has reported. And some counties are releasing inmates early and encouraging police to limit arrests, KJZZ's Jimmy Jenkins has noted. Advocates for prisoners are continuing to sound the alarm about population density and concerns about hygiene.

Other countries, such as Iran, have reportedly freed thousands of prisoners. Brazil, among others, has seen mass jailbreaks. At a large prison in Bogotá, Colombia, at least 23 people died amid an alleged breakout attempt.

"It is vital that governments should address the situation of detained people in their crisis planning to protect detainees, staff, visitors and of course wider society," Bachelet says.

She adds: "With outbreaks of the disease, and an increasing number of deaths, already reported in prisons and other institutions in an expanding number of countries, authorities should act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff."

As many jails and prisons limit in-person visits, Bachelet encouraged authorities to look into other options to help inmates stay in contact with the outside world, such as videoconferencing and allowing more phone calls.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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