Eritrea: Detainees in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions defenceless against COVID-19
Unable to shower or wash their clothes regularly, denied access to toilets or forced to relieve themselves in the open, thousands of people locked away in Eritrea’s crammed detention centres have little or no defence against COVID-19, according to information obtained by Amnesty International.
Testimonies pieced together since 2017 provide new insights into life in four prisons; Adi Abeyito prison, Mai Serwa Maximum prison and Mai Serwa Asmera Flowers detention camp, which are within 2-3km from each other, and about 6km north of the capital Asmara; and Ala, an all-male prison located 66km south of Asmara.
With overcrowding and general lack of adequate sanitation, healthcare and food, conditions in these detention facilities are inhumane and a cause of major concern in the face of COVID-19.
“With overcrowding and general lack of adequate sanitation, healthcare and food, conditions in these detention facilities are inhumane and a cause of major concern in the face of COVID-19. No one should be held in conditions that can have disastrous consequences on their mental and physical health,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
At Adi Abeyito, which currently holds about 2,500 people in a space designed for 800, detainees are allowed to shower and wash their clothes twice a week. However, in the other three facilities, detainees are rarely allowed to bathe or wash their clothes. Shoes and slippers are strictly prohibited to prevent detainees from jumping over barbed wire fencing.
Authorities do not provide personal hygiene products like soap, so detainees rely on their families for supplies. But since 2 April 2020, there has been a total lockdown of prisons with no visitors allowed in, cutting off the very supplies needed to keep COVID-19 and other diseases out of prisons.
No one should be held in conditions that can have disastrous consequences on their mental and physical health.
“Detainees in Eritrea are at great risk of contracting infectious diseases because of the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions they are being held in,” said Deprose Muchena.
At the Mai Serwa Asmera Flowers facility, in reality a forced labour camp where Jehovah’s Witnesses and other detainees are forced to work on flower farms, there are no toilets for detainees. All 700 of them, both men and women, relieve themselves out in the open. At Mai Serwa Maximum Security prison, there are only 20 toilets for 500 detainees.
In Adi Abeyito, detainees can relieve themselves only twice daily in toilets located outside the compound. The prison has toilets within its grounds reserved for use in the rainy season or extraordinary circumstances such as suspected strikes or prison breaks. In 2015, detainees raised money and built a toilet in each detention hall to cater for the needs of the sick, elderly or those with disabilities.
No social distance
The four prisons are extremely congested; Adi Abeyito holds more than four times its capacity of 800 people, Ala prison holding about triple its capacity of 1,200 people while Mai Serwa has more than double its 230-person capacity.
The vast majority have never been formally charged or brought to court and do not know when, or if, their detention will end.
They are held in spaces ranging from 2x2m cells for solitary confinement at the Mai Serwa Maximum prison, to shipping containers holding more than 20 detainees, and halls measuring up to 10x20m. Detainees generally take turns to sleep on bare floors because beds or mattresses are not allowed.
They are fed a standard diet of tea and bread in the morning, and bread with lentil sauce for lunch and supper. Security guards hand out the food in detention halls and cells because detainees are not allowed to leave their cramped holding places except to go to the toilet, or to the infirmary.
Their meals were supplemented by families visiting once a week, but the COVID-19 lockdown has cut off this supply line, putting detainees at greater risk of malnutrition and illness and disease.
First aid no match for serious illnesses
Testimonies received by Amnesty International reveal that detainees in all four detention facilities suffer a wide range of serious ailments including mental illnesses, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, anemia, diarrhea, asthma, tuberculosis, eye and ear infections, and gastro-intestinal infections. But they are attended to by health workers who only have first aid training.
Detainees pay for medication, infirmaries within detention facilities lacking even the most basic medical equipment such as thermometers. At Ala prison, detainees had to raise money to buy a thermometer and a blood pressure monitor that detained doctors use to help the sick monitor some of their conditions.
Very sick detainees at Ala prison are taken to a hospital 26 Km away in Dekemahare town, some dying on the way. The critically ill at Adi Abiyeto and other nearby prisons are taken to Halibet Hospital in Asmara every Friday.
The Eritrean authorities must free all prisoners of conscience and consider releasing children, pre-trial detainees and those who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, including the sick and older people.
“Too many detainees are wasting away in unofficial detention facilities across the country with no idea what will become of them. The Eritrean authorities have a duty to ensure that all detainees have access to adequate food, water, sanitation facilities and healthcare. They must also free all prisoners of conscience and consider releasing children, pre-trial detainees and those who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, including the sick and older people,” said Deprose Muchena.