Beijing has deployed a team from China’s top law enforcement body to investigate how a coronavirus outbreak erupted in the country’s cramped prison system.
Ministry of Justice officials said on Friday that more than 500 prisoners in five prisons in three provinces had contracted the virus, which has so far sickened almost 80,000 people and killed more than 2,000 people, mostly in China.
“With a heavy heart and sense of responsibility, I am reporting to you that as of February 20, five prisons in Hubei, Shandong and Zhejiang have reported infections among their populations,” He Ping, head of the ministry’s Bureau of Prison Administration, said in Beijing.
More than half of the cases were in the central Chinese province of Hubei, the epicentre of the epidemic, with 230 cases at Wuhan Women’s Prison and 41 cases at Shayang Hanjin Prison.
In the eastern province of Shandong, 207 cases – including seven among guards – were reported at Rencheng Prison in Jining, while another 34 cases were identified at Shilifen Prison in Zhejiang province, also in the country’s east. In addition, authorities found 10 suspected cases among prisoners in the three provinces, including some at a juvenile detention centre.
State news agency Xinhua reported that Lei Dongsheng, deputy secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, China’s top law enforcement agency, would lead a high-level team to investigate the outbreak at Rencheng Prison. The team will include officials from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice.
He pledged “all out efforts” to quarantine the suspected cases and ensure hospital treatment for prisoners confirmed with the virus.
Prisons across the country had been ordered to step up monitoring of all prison guards and officers to “prevent the spread of the virus into prison premises”, he said, adding that the Ministry of Justice had sent 28 teams to prisons across the country to ensure compliance.
According to Shandong authorities, a prison guard at the Rencheng prison started coughing and showing other symptoms in early February. All 2,077 people held or working at the prison were given a nucleic acid test.
Xie Weijun, Communist Party secretary of the province’s Department of Justice, and seven prison officials were sacked for mismanagement over the infections, the Shandong government said.
In Zhejiang province, the provincial government said two prison officials had been sacked over the cluster of cases at the Shilifen jail.
Unconfirmed reports of infections in Shandong’s prisons have circulated widely on social media since last weekend. Over the past few days, Jining internet users reported that many work WeChat groups were disbanded to prevent further online discussions.
Tony Tang, who comes from Jining but now lives in New York, said he first learned about the spread of the coronavirus in Huxi Prison in Yutai county about a week ago through his contacts in his hometown.
He posted a message on Twitter on Sunday night reporting a possible outbreak at the prison just south of Jining, and there was soon a knock at his parents’ door.
“Within hours of me posting the message, security officials visited my parents who still live in Jining and asked them to tell me to delete the message,” Tang said. “The speed of their response shows that they knew this was serious and [I felt something] was not normal.”
Tang said official documents leaked online indicated there were outbreaks at other prisons in the area.
A staff member at Jining’s disease control centre said that she knew nothing about any outbreak at prisons.
Xie Yanyi, a human rights lawyer who was detained in the northern city of Tianjin as part of the “709 crackdown” on rights advocates in 2015, said that nearly every prison in China was overcrowded, allowing the virus to spread faster and wider.
“It is very common for, say, a cell of 10 people to have 20 people squeezed in. The space for each person is extremely limited, and resources are generally scarce. Health conditions behind bars were already a concern even before the coronavirus broke out,” Xie said.
He said inmates’ health was unlikely to be a high priority given that prison authorities focused on security and control.
“I am very pessimistic that prisoners will get good care when medical resources are under pressure throughout the country. The whole prison system is already a very sensitive area and closed,” Xie said.
“The conditions of prisoners are especially concerning because … they are totally cut off from the outside world and there is no way that they can get help.”
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