Vulnerable prisoners currently locked up in jail at Corradino Correctional Facility should be freed to protect them from the risk of coronavirus infection, Peppi Azzopardi has argued.

Azzopardi argued that prisoners with sentences due to end this year should be sent home and monitored with a GPS tag, to reduce overcrowding at the Paola prison and lessen the risk of it becoming a COVID-19 hotspot.

“They’re not going to go anywhere, they have to stay indoors,” Azzopardi argued in a video posted to Facebook.

“If we are saying that we must protect vulnerable people from this virus, what are vulnerable people doing in prison?”

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Vulnerable people – categorised as over 65s, pregnant women and those with specific health conditions – have been told to remain indoors and limit contact with other people to the bare minimum.

Azzopardi, who presents popular TV show Xarabank, has long been a vocal advocate of prisoners' rights.

In the video, he uses the examples of a prisoner who "has one lung and is in a wheelchair" and of another who is 80 years old to argue that these vulnerable people should not be left in cramped conditions at CCF.   

Azzopardi’s proposal to send vulnerable prisoners home is likely to prove divisive. But countless countries, from the USA to Iran, have moved to commute prison sentences in the past weeks to reduce prison populations, fearing massive spreads of coronavirus within their four walls.

In the USA, attorney general William Barr has urged states to release at-risk inmates to slow the spread of the virus there. Many have done so, with New York and California releasing hundreds of vulnerable prisoners.

The UK is preparing to release up to 4,000 low-risk offenders. All will be tagged and monitored. France, Iran, Australia, Germany and Canada have all announced that they will be releasing thousands of prisoners to limit the pandemic spread.

Concerns stem from the tightly packed conditions inmates live, with two or more people living in close confinement in each jail cell.

Azzopardi made the point in his video plea, asking “how can [inmates] obey authorities and maintain social distancing?”

According to Crime Malta, there were 745 inmates at CCF as of the end of 2019. 

The World Health Organisation has itself warned countries that they can expect "huge mortality rates" due to COVID-19 inside prisons unless they take measures to mitigate risk factors there. 

The WHO has recommended restricting access to prisons to non-essential staff and screening all inmates, irrespective of symptoms. 

During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, prison populations were among the first – and worst- clusters of the population to be hit. One of the first documented outbreaks of that virus was in the famous San Quentin prison, where 500 of its 1,900 inmates were infected in 60 days.

Locally, Opposition MP Beppe Fenech Adami has expressed concern about the risk of coronavirus spreading inside the local prison and suggested that vulnerable prisons could be separated from the general prison population and moved to another form of detention.

Officers at CCF have now been assigned week-long shifts to reduce their contact with the outside world and limit the risk of the virus spreading. Visits to prison have also been temporarily halted. 

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