MANILA— A prison in the Philippines is suffering from a major outbreak of the new coronavirus with 123 infected inmates, officials said on Wednesday, adding to concerns among activists about contagion risks in some of the world’s most overcrowded jails.
The mayor of Cebu City said a new building in the prison capable of handling 3,000 people would be used as an isolation facility to contain an outbreak that accounts for 40% of cases in the Philippines‘ second biggest city.
There were no details about the possible source of the outbreak. Eighteen cases have been found at a jail in Manila’s Quezon City, among them nine members of staff, and media has reported infections at other facilities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) was among several groups that called for inmates held for minor, non-violent offences, or those with health conditions, to be freed from Philippine prisons to create more space.
Activists globally have been urging governments to free political prisoners.
HRW this month warned of the likelihood of a serious coronavirus outbreak in the Philippines “threatening the lives of prisoners whose health the authorities have a duty to protect”.
The Cebu jail outbreak is among the biggest known coronavirus clusters in the Philippines, which as of Wednesday had 6,710 infections and 446 deaths. About 70% of cases are in the capital, Manila.
Philippine prisons are notoriously overcrowded due to a combination of poverty, high crime rates and a judicial system unable to cope with a huge case volume.
A shortage of public defenders, overwhelmed judges and insufficient funds to post bail means suspects typically spend long periods – sometimes years – in detention awaiting court hearings that often end up with acquittals.
As of December, nearly 90,000 people in the Philippines were detained awaiting trial, corrections bureau data showed.
President Rodrigo Duterte‘s war on drugs has exacerbated the problem, each year adding tens of thousands to jails, with 71% of inmates held on drugs-related charges.
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that due to concerns about the coronavirus, judges should urgently free prisoners eligible for temporary or early release. —Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Martin Petty Editing by Robert Birsel