Considered to be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus infection because of forced proximity and generally unhygienic conditions in jails, prisoners in Hong Kong and the USA are now being used to manufacture face masks and hand sanitiser to shore up fast dwindling supplies.
Women inmates at the Lo Wu prison in Hong Kong have reportedly been asked to work night shifts to make 2.5m face masks a month after a huge rise in demand according to Reuters.
Female prisoners in Lo Wu prison are paid around HK$800 (£80) a month for round-the-clock production, significantly lower than Hong Kong’s minimum wage.
“This is an exploitation and another form of modern slavery,” said ShiuKa-chun, a lawmaker who has been campaigning for prisoners’ rights.
Prison officials defended the decision as a spokeswoman at the Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department said: “all persons in custody participating in the night shift are on a voluntary basis”.
“If they found themselves not adaptable to the night shift work, they may approach the management at any time,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
The prison official said about 100 women prisoners work six days a week, for shifts of six to 10 hours, including night shifts.
About 1,200 retired or off-duty prison officers are also working to produce the masks, the government said.
On Monday the governor of New York announced the state will also be using prison labour to produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitisers for schools, prisons, transportation systems and other government agencies.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in a press conference on Monday that the production of the hand sanitiser was in response to shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak.
There was criticism of the decision from US politicians. Democrat Ayanna Pressley drew attention to the “ironic” link between the equipment prisoners are making and their own vulnerability.
She said on Twitter: “Wow. Considering that many incarcerated men & women are subjected to inhumane conditions, including no hand soap, & hand sanitizer is banned in most prisons, this is especially demeaning, ironic & exploitive.”
Campaigners at the National Prison Project warned that prison inmates are among the most vulnerable populations to the spread of Covid-19: “There is ample opportunity for a virus to enter a prison or jail, and for it to go back out into the community. Once a contagious illness enters, conditions in correctional facilities are highly conducive to it spreading.”
Some US lawyers have asked that elderly and vulnerable people be released from jail to protect them from coronavirus.
The danger faced by prisoners in overcrowded jails became evident in several other countries this week.
In Iran the head of the judiciary said 70,000 prisoners were being released to combat the spread of coronavirus in jails, as officials reported hundreds of new infections and dozens more deaths across the country.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters the inmates were allowed out of prison after testing negative for Covid-19 and posting bail.
“Recent reports indicate that the Covid-19 virus has spread inside Iranian prisons,” Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said in Geneva on Monday.
In Italy seven prisoners died as riots spread through crowded jails across Italy over measures imposed to contain the coronavirus, including restricting family visits.
Italy’s prisons are among the most overcrowded in Europe. “The spread of the virus is a real concern,” said Andrea Oleandri of the Italian prison rights group Antigone.
Prisons experts in the UK are also concerned that overcrowded jails could create a “perfect storm” for spreading disease
The Howard League for Penal Reform, a leading UK prisons charity, has written to the Ministry of Justice demanding a statement on precautions being taken to protect people in prison, and thereby the wider population, from coronavirus. (Source: The Guardian)