Hundreds of inmates in prisons in the central and eastern China have been infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), according to the country's health authorities.
Prisons in the central province of Hubei and the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Shandong have reported more than 500 confirmed cases of the virus, with some officials sanctioned over their handling of the epidemic there.
Wuhan Women's Prison, in Hubei's provincial capital, was the worst affected, with a total of 230 confirmed cases, while Shayang Hanjin Prison had reported 41 cases, according to official figures.
Meanwhile, Rencheng Prison in Shandong has been closed to outsiders since the beginning of the month, after two prison guards tested positive for the virus.
Since then, 207 confirmed cases have been reported, of seven guards and 200 prisoners.
Shandong provincial justice department Chinese Communist Party secretary Xie Weijun was removed from his position, taking the blame for poor epidemic prevention and control practices. He is currently under investigation by the Party's investigative arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
Meanwhile, 34 prisoners have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Zhejiang's Shilifeng Prison, where political commissar and the prison director have been removed from office, while a guard has been placed under investigation.
Wang Quanzhang visit denied
The prison has also been placed under lockdown to prevent further spread of the epidemic.
At Shandong's Linyi Prison, Li Wenzu, wife of jailed human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, was denied permission for her monthly visit, with prison authorities citing the coronavirus epidemic.
"I asked them if we could use other methods, for example talking via [social media app] WeChat video," Li told RFA on Thursday. "They said no, that wouldn't be possible."
"Then I asked if I could talk with Wang Quanzhang on the phone, just to be sure he's OK," she said. "I have been calling them every day, but they told me they are waiting for the prison leader[s] to get back to them."
"It's not going to happen anyway, because they don't allow anything," she said. "I asked if I could visit him twice next month, but they said no."
Shandong lawyer Zhu Shengwu said the epidemic has been allowed to run unchecked in prisons in the region.
"There is a collective exercise period in prison, and they all get let out at noon together," Zhu said.
"The Communist Party also ... expects prisoners to carry out free or very low-paid labor which requires them all to be working alongside each other, so there is plenty of opportunity for the virus to spread."
'Trying to look transparent'
He said the sackings and sanctions against prison officials was "to appease public opinion, both domestically and internationally."
"They are trying to look transparent, saying that they will deal with officials severely and correct any mistakes."
Former rights activist Yang Zhanqing, who has served time in prison, said hygiene standards are low in prisons at the best of times, with overcrowding rife.
"There were originally 15 beds in one cell, but there were often 20-30 people in a cell," he said. "Towels and other supplies need to be paid for, the prison uniforms are very dirty, and the bedding is very dirty too."
"Once someone is infected, then there is a big danger [that the virus will spread]."
Authorities in Hubei reported a total of 2,144 deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, out of a total of 2,236.
Mainland China reported a total of 76,467 confirmed cases out of a global total of 76,787.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.