An Egyptian police officer at the entrance of the Tora prison in the Egyptian capital Cairo.  © Khaled Desouki / AFP

In a country like Egypt where basic rights are severely stifled, there are many rights-related ramifications during a public health crisis. One of the most urgent is the impact on vulnerable groups, such as those in closed, densely crowded prisons. 

Egyptian prisons are notorious for being overcrowded, dirty and unhygienic. Last November, UN experts said that Egypt’s abusive detention conditions “may be placing the health and lives of thousands [of] prisoners at severe risk.” This was months before the outbreak of the highly contagious COVID-19, which could be devastating. 

Living in agony

Among the urgent measures Human Rights Watch has recommended is for governments in affected countries to conditionally release unfairly detained prisoners. In Egypt, this could be easily done, starting with the thousands of people imprisoned not for wrongdoing, but for peacefully exercising their rights.

Instead, the government on 10 March issued a 10-day, nationwide halt on prison visits by families and lawyers. To make things worse, on Thursday, Egypt witnessed rare, severe weather - streets flooded, power down in many areas and roofs damaged with a number of fatalities. 

Families with “unofficial” ways to communicate with jailed relatives reported that some prisons in Cairo witnessed water leaks and electricity cuts. Those families live in agony, and they are right to be concerned. When families tried to send soap and disinfectants to their jailed relatives, the prison administration refused.

The government deals with prison issues in extreme secrecy. It has never released figures about the prison population or capacity, let alone more detailed statistics on age, sex, education, numbers and reasons for deaths in custody, and so on. 

Those who follow Egypt's news know that the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has fiercely suppressed dissent, arresting tens of thousands of people, many of them critics, writers, journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers and peaceful protesters. Thousands have been jailed without trial, caught in Egypt’s abusive pretrial detention system. 

Inhumane conditions

Many are kept in police stations, security directorates and unofficial detention sites, such as security forces training sites. A May 2015 report from the National Council for Human Rights said that police stations were 300 percent over capacity and prisons 160 percent over capacity.

Egyptian prisoners complain about inhumane and degraded conditions. Prisoners have said that guards punish them by confiscating personal hygiene tools, such as soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and toilet paper. Toilets are filthy, and prisoners sometimes have to use water in buckets for lack of running water. Proper ventilation and sunshine are scarce. 

If there is one piece of advice a prisoner in Egypt would give a new prisoner, it would probably be: “Don’t get sick.” Inadequate medical care is the norm and threatens thousands of ill prisoners. Previous Human Rights Watch reports show that prison officials have "let die" many prisoners in recent years, even though their illnesses were manageable, such as diabetes or heart conditions. 

Even those who were terminally ill because of advanced liver cirrhosis or metastatic cancers have been denied release, robbing them of the opportunity to rest and die among their loved ones. 

If that’s already daily life in Egyptian prisons, then the system is definitely not prepared to face a pandemic such as COVID-19. 

Shielded from the world

President Sisi should immediately order the release of the thousands of people detained for peacefully exercising their rights. 

It is more pressing than ever to end the excessive use of pretrial detention and release those detained without trial for months, even years, without judicial review. Pre-trial detention should always be an exceptional measure, not the rule and every detained person should be taken before a judge to rule on the legality and necessity of their detention within two days of being detained.

Steps such as these could quickly relieve the burdened prison system and alleviate the pain of thousands of families. An additional measure the government could consider is to activate existing laws that allow the release of prisoners who have served most of their sentences and those who suffer serious or terminal illnesses.

Prisons in Egypt are shielded from the outside world. Authorities routinely deprive prisoners from family visits for months at a time, and prisoners are rarely, if ever, allowed to write and receive letters or make phone calls.

The coronavirus pandemic is another reminder that it is long overdue for the government to open prisons for inspection by independent local and international organisations, including the International Committee of Red Cross, rather than farcical, staged visits, such as the one recently arranged by the government, showing prisoners enjoying barbecue.

Note: Another research staff member took part in the drafting of this op-ed.