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By Theresa Goodwin

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Possible early release of prison inmates will come under discussion today, along with other measures to contain the coronavirus spread, during a virtual meeting of the Lower House of Parliament.

Minister with responsibility for prisons, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, said talks have already begun in a move being mirrored across the region.

“We are looking at the possibility of releasing persons who have six months or less to serve in prison. That is a consideration and that appears to be the concept going forward. I have had discussions with my colleagues in the region and that appears to be the measure which will be adopted,” Benjamin told Observer yesterday.

Several countries worldwide are indeed releasing prisoners, in some cases temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some world leaders have also opted to temporarily release inmates with pre-existing medical conditions which would make them vulnerable to the disease.

So far, government officials have suspended all prison visits for two weeks, and this came into effect on March 22.

The practice of family members delivering daily meals to prisoners was also put on hold and the movement of inmates working outside HMP was also restricted, with the exception those working on the prison farm.

Prisoners at the country’s lone penal institution had expressed concerns about some of the measures, particularly the discontinuation of meals from relatives, and their health and safety amid the pandemic.

They complained that the close confines of the overcrowded prison made them and their wardens particularly vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases.

Minister Benjamin also spoke of plans to address the issue of overcrowding, particularly with the addition of new prisoners.

“Where new persons are sent into the prison, on remand or otherwise, we are going to find some methodology to make certain they do not intermingle or come into contact with inmates who are already at the institution. We are trying to curtail any possible carriage,” Benjamin said.

Antigua and Barbuda has so far reported nine confirmed cases of Covid-19 and Benjamin confirmed that, to date, no one in the prison has contracted the virus and the government intends to keep it that way.

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