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Ex-Convicts Body Calls For Release of Prisoners

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Says prison conditions aid spread of the coronavirus

TLOTLO KEBINAKGABO

An organisation made up of ex-convicts has added its voice to what is becoming an international movement by calling on President Mokgweetsi Masisi to release prisoners who have served most of their sentences as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in local prisons.

The Botswana Institute of Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Offenders (BIRRO) also wants new inmates separated from old ones and visits to courts of law halted as measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Admiration of Justice has entered the fray, calling on prisoners awaiting trial to apply for bail.
But so far Botswana is yet to record a case of the novel coronavirus which has infected at least 290 000 people and killed more than 12 000 globally as at the time of going to press yesterday (Monday).
The government is continually reviewing and introducing measures to avoid the spread of the pandemic. Schools have been closed while gatherings of people more than 100 people are strongly discouraged.
This has prompted BIRRO to call on the government to consider releasing inmates close to completion of their prison sentences. “We suggest that the President release some of the prisoners who have completed most of their sentences, people who for example, are left with days and even months to complete their sentences,” BIRRO states in a letter dated 20 March that is addressed to President Masisi and signed by Mothei Sejakgomo, who is the organisation’s director.
“This would greatly reduce the Botswana prisons population and would massively aid in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 should in slightest possibility, one of the inmates get exposed to the virus.”
BIRRO argues that while Botswana’s prisons were built to accommodate 3000 prisoners, they hold more that. “This is by far beyond the carrying capacity of our prisons,” the letter says. “A release of prisoners would greatly increase the space occupied between any two prisoners as we know that the virus gets spread easily by close proximity of individuals, one to another.”
The BIRRO fears over prisoners are apparent all over the world as UK-based publication, The Guardian, reports that prisons have been a flashpoint in many countries’ battles against the virus. According to newspaper, several countries, including Spain, the US and Iran, are ordering the release of many inmates to lessen the risk of transmission among detainees and jail staff.
Accordingly, the US is said to have released thousands of inmates in an unprecedented effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in crowded jails and prisons. The country has released low-level offenders and elderly or sickly inmates’ early due to coronavirus fears, according The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, BIRRO has also urged the government through Masisi to thoroughly teach the prisoners about COVID-19 in the same way that the government is doing with the general public. According to the organisation, prisoners are more vulnerable to infection because of their close proximity to one another. “Also, because they are detained and kept within the same environment,” they argue. “Unlike any Motswana, they do not have constant access to news briefs and updates.”
BIRRO also say visits to courts of law by inmates should be suspended indefinitely until the COVID-19 threat is no more. They want one of the largest prison buildings set aside for new prisoners in order to control the spread of the virus from the new to old inmates. The Administration of Justice also weighed in on the matter, releasing a statement yesterday (Monday) urging prisoners on remand to make written applications for bail in order to reduce the need for actual attendance in the courts.

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