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Release non-violent drug offenders to ease virus threat: experts

Prisons are known incubators of infectious diseases, with social distancing impossible among inmates
Prisons are known incubators of infectious diseases, with social distancing impossible among inmates - EL SALVADOR'S PRESIDENCY PRESS OFFICE/AFP/File
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Paris (AFP)

Governments should take measures to release non-violent drug offenders in order to reduce the health impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of global experts said Thursday.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy also called on governments to target narcotic kingpins by tackling their international financial networks rather than throwing street-level dealers behind bars.

The Commission said the release of non-violent offenders would reduce the damage to national health systems caused by "years of repressive policies" at a time when governments are battling COVID-19.

"The overcrowding of prisons worldwide is a direct result of drug policing," Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, told AFP.

"These are young people, often only those who possess drugs for their own consumption, or non-violent criminals who are there generally due to a lack of other opportunities to make a living."

Jailing street dealers "doesn't hurt the criminal organisation", she said.

As many as 300,000 prisoners, many jailed on drugs offences, are due to be released worldwide as governments struggle to contain COVID-19, according to the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Turkey has said it will authorise the early release around 90,000 prisoners and Iran plans around 85,000 early releases due to COVID-19.

"It's a clear demonstration that having people locked up is no different to when they are free to move around," said Dreifuss.

"It's arbitrary. When you look at what sector of the population is locked up for petty crimes it is nearly always people from sections that are discriminated against."

Dreifuss however cautioned that releasing offenders early due to the pandemic "shouldn't mean abandoning them in the streets or at the margins of society".

An essay published last month in the Health and Human Rights Journal outlined how jails are the perfect place for pandemics to spread.

"Poor and overcrowded conditions of detention, coupled with a detainee population that often suffers from multiple health vulnerabilities, have long made prisons susceptible to rapid spread of disease and death," it said.

"The highly contagious nature of the COVID-19, its global spread, and the worrying levels of mortality associated with it, have therefore raised widespread concern."

The US Centers for Disease Control this week said that as of April 21, 4,893 inmates had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 88 had died.

Prisons have historically been incubators of diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis and there is an established link between outbreaks behind bars and epidemics in the surrounding community as prison visitors infect other locals.

The Commission called for governments to go after the lawyers of drug elites, and to view drugs control as a matter of public health as well as security.

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