Two prison inmates died and ten others were hospitalised in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo after they ingested hand sanitiser to get drunk, prompting a ban on alcohol-based sanitising products in all prisons across the country, according to the Department of Prisons.
Prison authorities have instead started giving prisoners soap as an alternative, the agency added.
All 12 inmates who fell ill from the sanitisers were Iranian nationals arrested in 2019 after they were caught smuggling nearly 76 kilograms of heroin into the country.
Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake, a spokesperson for the Department of Prisons, told VICE World News that the group received several parcels containing dry food and hygiene items from the Iranian embassy in Colombo on October 14. “The inmates had consumed the antiseptic liquid thinking they could get drunk,” he said.
The bodies of the two inmates, who died of methanol poisoning, are currently being held at the prison complex, pending the arrival of family and relatives.
The other inmates, Ekanayake added, are still recovering from the effects of poisoning.
Hand sanitiser being consumed as a way to get drunk has been reported in other countries. Methanol, a common ingredient in alcohol-based antiseptics, can be highly toxic when ingested—hundreds of cases of poisoning have been reported from all over the world.
The decision to ban all alcohol-based products from prisons came over the weekend, two days after the deaths.
“No other inmate has been affected by this or attempted to drink hand sanitiser, but as a precaution, the department has decided to stop bringing in any hand sanitiser products into the prisons. Instead, we will provide soap to the inmates,” Ekanayake said.
Sri Lanka’s prison system has been shaken by COVID-19 scares several times since the pandemic broke out last year. On two occasions, fear of infection among inmates led to fatal clashes with prison officials.
On March 21, prison inmates in Anuradhapura clamored to be separated from each other after the identification of four coronavirus cases in the facility. The protest became violent, and two inmates died.
In December last year, at least eight people were killed and over 250 were injured following a prison riot at the Mahara Prison, some 15 kilometres from Colombo. The inmates had launched protests amid a surge of coronavirus infections in prisons, and they demanded early release on bail and better facilities.
That same month saw a series of similar protests in other prisons in the country, with inmates demanding better facilities in order to avoid a “COVID-19 cluster.”
Despite this, coronavirus cases in prisons surged past 3,000 later that month, including 100 prison officials, prompting the health department to call it a “prison cluster.”
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