As the world continues to grapple with an unprecedented pandemic that has crippled countries, one of the many issues that has emerged is the gap that is our prison response—and how our shortcomings in this area may very well render the rest of our COVID-19 response useless. The International Drug Policy Consortium recently held a webinar covering countries in Southeast Asia to examine just that.  

Southeast Asia suffers from some of the most overcrowded jails in the world. The Philippines stands at over 500% capacity, with 75% of people in detention still awaiting their sentence. Indonesia and Thailand are not far behind housing around 150% of their capacities.

Source: World Prison Brief, accessed on 15 May 2020: https://www.prisonstudies.org/world-prison-brief-data

Dr. Raymund Narag, one of the panelists in IDPC’s webinar on “Reducing Incarceration in the Time of COVID-19,” notes how one of the primary contributors to the continuously increasing prison population remains the harsh drug laws in the region. This is compounded by case delay due to the sheer number of people our justice systems have to process and the long prison sentences that are the norm for nonviolent drug offenses—among many other institutional issues exacerbated by disproportionate drug policing. Yohan Misero of Indonesian Act for Justice (AKSI)  and Dr. Nang Pann Ei Kham of Drug Policy Advocacy Group Myanmar echo these frustrations, noting how easy it is to arrest people who use drugs in Indonesia and how 50% of people in Myanmar’s prisons are detained for drug offenses.

The poor state of jails and prisons in Southeast Asia make people in detention some of the most vulnerable for COVID-19. Overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor sanitation in the facilities have already left them with poor health and immunity. The difficulty in accessing health services and limited resources to prevent the spread of infections among the prison population only make it worse. In Cebu where Atty. Cathy Alvarez of StreetLaw in the Philippines resides, even prior to the pandemic, the eleven detention centers that spanned three of their islands were only covered by one lone doctor. As of the webinar, more than 300 people in detention in Cebu have tested positive for COVID-19.

In Myanmar, almost 25,000 people were pardoned and released from prison following the largest ever presidential amnesty granted, during local new year celebrations. In Indonesia, about 50,000 people will be freed through an early release process. The Philippines has begun this process as well with 10,000 people released from detention so far and hearings of further cases ongoing. The Philippines has also taken steps to lower the threshold for release through reducing bail amounts, with advocates aiming to have it reduced even more, and to conduct hearings through video conferencing. These initiatives are brave and important steps for countries in protecting the health of their people, but more needs to be done.

The Support. Don’t Punish. Campaign calls for the scale-up of harm reduction approaches to drug use and the decriminalisation of people who use drugs. This photo is of the campaign in Myanmar, and taken from Nang Pann Ei Kham’s presentation during the webinar.

In the Philippines, although the Board of Pardons and Parole have recommended vulnerable populations in detention (such as the elderly) to be granted executive clemency, this also excludes those charged with drug offenses as they’re classified as “high-risk.” And despite having one of the highest number of releases, Indonesia’s director-general has emphasized that most people imprisoned for drug crimes are excluded (only people imprisoned for less than a 5-year term and who have completed at least ⅔ of that term are eligible for release, and due to the high level of penalties for possession any quantity of drugs, most people in prison for drug offences have greater than a 5 year sentence. Typically only people charged or convicted of consumption alone will be sentenced with less than 5 years in prison).  Those who have been released have been met with hostility and discrimination in their communities, with community members still wary of those who have come out of prison and jails.

As countries navigate the COVID-19 crisis, we’re faced with the impact of our overreliance in the criminal justice system in dealing with drug-related issues. Systems that had been left behind prior to the pandemic might just be the gap that exacerbates the outbreak. We need to strengthen our health and justice institutions now to ensure that we’re not faced with the same crisis in the future.

At the same time, the stigma against people who use drugs continues to blind the justice sector from seeing just how important it is to include people involved with drugs in our emergency release responses. We cannot leave them behind. The need to advocate for better drug laws has always been urgent, but now it’s even more apparent as a matter of life and death for our communities.