Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 August 2020

Coronavirus: Dubai's main prison frees hundreds to reduce population

Dubai Central Prison cut inmate numbers by 35 per cent, allowing many locked up for minor crimes to go free

Dubai's main prison has released hundreds of inmates serving sentences for minor crimes as part of efforts to reduce the population.

The move has seen prisoner numbers at Dubai Central Prison fall by up to 35 per cent in recent weeks.

Hundreds are pardoned by the country's rulers for Ramadan every year, but the move was part of broader attempts to tackle protect inmates during the coronavirus outbreak, officials said.

"We received directives to release inmates and since the outbreak, there are 30 to 35 per cent fewer prisoners," Brig Ali Al Shamali, director general of correctional institutions, told AFP during a tour of Al Aweer.

We want to reduce the number on a daily basis, especially release those with simple cases, not ones accused of big crimes

Brigadier Ali Al Shamali

"We want to reduce the number on a daily basis, especially release those with simple cases, not ones accused of big crimes."

He declined to say what the total prison population was this year, but officials have previously said the jail can hold about 4,000 inmates.

For Ramadan, President Sheikh Khalifa pardoned 1,511 inmates on April 21 and a further 1,899 were released by the Rulers of Dubai, Sharjah, RAK and Fujairah the following day. More prisoners were released for Eid on Sunday.

Those pardoned have the chance to return to their families or their home countries, depending on the terms of their release.

Covid-19 tests for every inmate and warden

Behind a sound-proof glass door, an inmate speaks with someone on a computer screen after visits to the Dubai prison were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In another room of the same compound, about 35 kilometres from the city centre, another inmate appeared for a virtual court hearing, while a third was questioned by a prosecutor online.

The use of video conferences is one of the ways authorities are trying to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the prison.

"We are trying to eliminate all direct contact with prisoners, heavily depending on modern technology," Brig Al Shamali.

An inmate works on a 1:60 scale reproduction of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Dubai Central Prison. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
An inmate works on a 1:60 scale reproduction of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

"We can guarantee the health of the inmate but how can we know whether someone from outside is carrying the virus?"

Prisoners in the Dubai jail can now talk to their families using Skype.

Brig Al Shamali declined to say how many prisoners had caught the coronavirus, but said there were no "active" cases and the overall number could be "counted with fingers".

Those diagnosed with Covid-19 had mild cases and required only "isolation and simple treatment".

Our main concern is that we continue to provide the same quality of service, even if it is from afar

Badr Sultan, prison doctor

Everyone, whether serving time or employed at the jail, was tested "without exception" in co-ordination with the official health authorities, Brig Al Shamali said.

Inmates and staff must wear masks and gloves at all times, some classes and workshops were suspended and the prison gym closed.

To date, the UAE has recorded more than 29,000 Covid-19 cases, including 245 deaths. There have been more than 15,000 recoveries.

"We seek to reduce contact at work but our main concern is that we continue to provide the same quality of service, even if it is from afar," Badr Sultan, a prison doctor, said from his office.

Dr Sultan said most medical consultations took place by video.

New inmates are tested for Covid-19 and isolated for 48 hours before admission, Brig Al Shamali said.

In a nearby clinic, a dermatologist asked an inmate to describe his skin condition, prescribing an ointment after seeing the infected area on screen.

In another room, a psychiatrist spoke online to an inmate about the "daily pressures" of life during a pandemic.

The safety measures in the prison have been difficult on inmates, some of whom are used to spending their days in workshops and recreational classes.

A group of seven prisoners had been working on producing the largest cardboard sculpture. The goal is for Guinness World Records to certify it.

Cardboard domes and arches were scattered across a prison recreation room – parts for a scale replica of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – but the virus restrictions have slowed work on the project in the past two months.

"I came to the UAE in 1999 and I loved the design of the Sheikh Zayed mosque, so I studied it and sought to build the biggest cardboard model by 2021," said the inmate in charge of the project.

"We have put the project aside for now. The question now is: 'What do I do with my time here?'"

Updated: May 25, 2020 03:19 PM

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