Across the Americas, prisons are hothousing the coronavirus

Paraguay has the highest percentage of people in pre-trial detention in Latin America, approximately 77 per cent. Cells designed for two people currently sleep six or more. In Tacumbú (in the image), the largest prison in the country, there are more than 4,000 people in a facility designed for 1,300. (Santi Carneri)

Since quarantine for the COVID-19 pandemic began (and as of writing this article, in the first week of May), more than 1,000 people have escaped from prisons in the state of São Paulo in Brazil, while at least 25 have died and 87 have been wounded in clashes with security forces. Five people have died in riots in various jails in Argentina, and 47 people were killed on 1 May at the Venezuelan prison Los Llanos. In Peru, there have been nine deaths in similar altercations, and in Colombia, massive protests have spread throughout prisons across the country.

In the United States, dozens of inmates have escaped or mutinied. To date, according to the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, 380 people have died in prison from COVID-19, a figure that exceeds all those killed by the death penalty in the US over the past decade, according to the Sentencing Law and Policy blog. Estimates of further deaths behind bars are bleak: one model predicts an additional 100,000 total deaths in the US if the prison system continues to operate as normal. In central America, in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, it is the criminal gangs that govern the prisons and not the state, which only has restricted access to them. The inmates believe that, in this health crisis, their only option is to take care of themselves.

“To wake up every day thinking about how to cope with this illness, if I catch it, knowing that the prison population is not a priority, when the whole of society feels desperate…if in normal times it is hell, can you imagine yourself in a time of pandemic disaster?” asks an inmate from Tacumbú, the largest prison in Paraguay, speaking to Equal Times by telephone.

People in prison across the continent share the same fears. There isn’t enough space to maintain safe distances. Hygiene is conspicuous by its absence, access to soap and water is more difficult than ever, and the ban on family visits – the only common measure in almost all countries – has left people hungry. Very hungry, because even to eat the majority depend on the material and financial assistance that their loved ones on the outside provide.

“An outbreak of COVID-19 in Latin American prisons would be catastrophic,” explains Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher for Brazil, César Muñoz. “In general, in Latin America, with the current overcrowding, it is impossible to apply social distancing measures to respond to the virus. There is simply no space,” he says.

Approximately 1.6 million people are held in prisons in Latin America, according to data from the World Prison Brief, a platform of the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), which is part of the Birkbeck School of Law, University of London.

In the case of Brazil, of its 210 million inhabitants, some 773,000 live behind bars, in a system designed for approximately half this number. This figure represents two-thirds of the prison population of all of Latin America; only Mexico comes close, with 198,000 people incarcerated. Haiti, for its part, is the country with the most overcrowding in its prisons, with an occupancy rate of around 454 per cent.

Overcrowding results in people sleeping on floors, without direct access to running water, a decent bathroom or adequate food. It also means less or no access to healthcare, education or work. “Even the isolation cells are already full. What if a detainee has coronavirus symptoms? Where do they put them?” asks Muñoz.

The immediate and common reaction of the authorities in all these countries has been to ‘close’ the prisons. Visits from family, lawyers or judges are no longer allowed for the time being unless they are essential. But according to Muñoz this idea is “illusory, a myth”, because officials, police, food suppliers and other services continue to go to the prisons every day, creating a steady flow of contact.

“The lack of checks in Brazilian prisons, unlike American or European prisons, creates the perfect conditions for contagion. We know this from the high level of tuberculosis contagion, which is transmitted in the same way as COVID-19,” says Muñoz.

A reality that is being ignored

Prisons are a taboo that few speak of and that only the families of the inmates and workers (guards, lawyers, doctors, educators, etc.) know of. The rest of us barely notice when something extraordinary like a riot, an escape or a murder makes the leap from a prison in some corner of the world to the media.

Or when some public figure or ‘celebrity’ is held in a prison, as recently happened with the Brazilian football player Ronaldinho Gáucho, sent to prison with his brother for entering Paraguay on fake passports. Charged with that crime, the prosecution continued to hold them in preventive detention while investigating their relationship with a money laundering network.

But they are far from the only ones to experience pre-trial detention in the Americas: around 50 per cent of people deprived of liberty on the continent are awaiting trial. In other words, we do not know if they are guilty, but they are locked up, in conditions described as ‘subhuman’, ‘medieval’ and other similar adjectives by human rights experts, in prisons that are currently the perfect breeding ground for the spread of a virus that is ravaging the entire world.

Court delays in many countries on the continent can exceed three years, and most people in the Americas spend an average of six months waiting to be brought to trial, which can result in people serving a longer sentence than the sentence that would have been handed down. In Bolivia and Paraguay, people incarcerated without a sentence represent more than 70 per cent of the prison population, according to official data.

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Paraguay is the country in Latin America with the highest percentage of pre-trial detainees, approximately 77 per cent, according to government statistics, ranking fifth worldwide. So in a cell where two people should sleep, you will find six or more inmates, like in Tacumbú, the largest prison in the country and home to more than 4,000 people instead of the 1,300 it was designed for.

Here, incarcerated people are forced to build, buy or rent spaces, beds, mattresses, rooms, and any domestic appliances they want to use. To add insult to injury, prices are higher than outside the prison. Those in the main buildings (many prisoners are housed in informal structures that have been added on over the years) share two bathrooms between 60 to 80 people.

“The use of pre-trial detention should be the exception, but in many places it is the norm, especially for poor people accused of drug trafficking. But if you are accused of corruption and have good lawyers you are not going to wait for your trial in prison,” says Muñoz.

In Tacumbú, the lack of space forces about 200 men to sleep on patios and in hallways, on mattresses, if they are lucky, but more commonly on a threadbare blanket. There are so many people that have been in the same situation for so long that they are called pasilleros, or ‘corridors’, because of where they are forced to sleep. They are the poorest of the poor. And although to date no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Paraguay’s prisons, there have already been two suspected cases.

“The situation is quite tense. There are audio warnings, press releases and video warnings of the possibility of a riot because the people in prison can no longer have visitors. However, the guards continue to come and go and do not protect them,” says Dante Leguizamón, a Paraguayan lawyer who chairs the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (MNP), an independent state body in charge preventing human rights violations against people in custody. “Theoretically, the government has made an effort to improve access to hygiene and cleanliness, but the problem is so deep…[.] There is no light, there is no air circulating, there are no mattresses,” says the expert.

“We are suffering a lot from the absence of visits. It is the most essential thing for us and allows us to be in communication with our relatives. This lack of communication creates constant anxiety for us. Day and night,” another Tacumbú inmate tells us, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to be punished, since communication via telephone or the internet is restricted.

Caught between chaos inside and disinterest outside

In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, although with slight differences, gangs are in control of the prisons in which they are held. In fact, following recurring and terrifying prison massacres over the last two decades, different gangs have succeeded in being detained in different prisons exclusively for members of their organisation. This illustrates the logic under which the penitentiary systems of north-central America operate.

In El Salvador, from 2004 to 2018, members of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (best known as MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs were held in different prisons. While it is true that Salvadoran authorities have steadily increased their control over the inmates, these facilities continue to be places where the gangs decide who lives and who dies.

In these countries, authority is a space negotiated between state power and criminal power, and each party seems to understand what is theirs to administer. The state’s role is to ensure that inmates do not escape, or not en masse, and inmates are responsible for whatever happens inside.

Prison inmates from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador tell Equal Times that this kind of self-management protects them, above all, from the state itself: from its bureaucracy, corruption and violence. In the past two decades, two prisons and a juvenile detention centre have been burned down in Honduras, at least 15 riots have broken out across the three prison systems and at least 200 people have died in these incidents.

But this system has dire consequences when it comes to health. There have been epidemics of diseases such as tuberculosis, rotavirus, HIV and scabies in recent years. A former Salvadoran member of the Barrio 18 gang, an organisation formed in the United States and now present in Mexico and central America, recounts his experience after having contracted tuberculosis inside Izalco Prison:

“There was almost no treatment, only paracetamol for fever and aspirin. My homeboys believed that I was going to die. I was lying in a cell and I couldn’t move, and all they gave me was a mask. There were several of us. The only thing we had left was to entrust ourselves to God.”

The administrative chaos, which allows drug lords and gang members to rule behind closed doors, adding to the long-held contempt the governments of north-central America display towards their prison populations, create a far from encouraging scenario in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has not yet fully entered this region: as of 9 May, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have 3,455 infections and 147 deaths, but we can already make an educated guess as to the governments’ priorities – and it won’t be the prisons.

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In the words of the national spokesperson for MS-13 in El Salvador: “No hospital is going to take a ventilator away from a rich man to put on a gang member or someone who comes from our communities.”

United States: the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, the world’s highest rate of incarceration

The United States has the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world, with 2.3 million prisoners (698 people imprisoned for every 100,000 inhabitants), and has quickly become the country with the most infections. New York City became the epicentre of the pandemic in late March, and inmates and prison workers are now at serious risk. While the authorities have promised releases, few have taken place and the virus is spreading rapidly.

New York State has the sad honour of having the highest infection rate in the United States, with at least 332,931 cases, and according to the authorities, there are already more than 10,000 people infected with the coronavirus in its prison system.

COVID-19 made its way into the US prison system in late March, when New York prison authorities confirmed that two inmates of the Wende Correctional Facility tested positive for the virus. One of those infected, according to multiple US press reports, was the former film producer Harvey Weinstein, recently convicted of rape.

The coronavirus also reached New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail, which became a new focal point. Both the inmates and the prison staff describe an unhealthy environment, with practically no personal protective equipment and small spaces that prevent anyone from maintaining social distancing. At least 180 inmates, 114 guards and 23 health workers have tested positive for the new virus in the prison, according to reports cited by Democracy Now! “Emotionally, I’m a wreck. I have chronic asthma and I fear for my health. I am just tremendously down. Any given moment I could be in real danger,” an inmate at Rikers told the Guardian, recounting their experience there and painting a stark picture of what is happening in other correctional facilities.

According to US prison authorities, in other prisons, such as Ohio’s state prison the Marion Correctional Facility, there were already at least 2,026 confirmed cases amongst inmates at the end of April, representing almost three-quarters of the total prison population. And 162 staff members had tested positive. Four persons deprived of liberty have died from coronavirus in Marion and at least 19 people have died in prisons across Ohio.

Aside from prisons, there are immigration detention centres in the United States where more than 39,000 people are being held. More than 3,000 medical professionals and numerous immigrant rights advocacy groups have called for the detainees to be released, as have international organisations such as Amnesty International and HRW.

Reducing overcrowding is the only way

HRW has urged the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean to reduce the number of people crowded into their prisons and juvenile detention centres to prevent possible outbreaks of COVID-19 and thus avoid “the very serious negative consequences for the health of the rest of the population”.

Some governments, such as those of Chile, Argentina and Brazil, have already adopted “measures to allow house arrest or other alternatives to incarceration for certain categories of prisoners,” says the HRW report, which is calling on the remaining countries to “consider alternatives”.

“The only way is to reduce overcrowding and it can be done in a realistic, responsible and legal way, without putting public safety at risk,” Muñoz summarises. “The solution is not a massive release of prisoners, but many people can have a conditional release.”

This organisation and many others are asking the courts to use alternative measures to prison, reinforce health checks, train staff and prisoners, and provide adequate equipment to take care of their health and not spread infections.

“They can release people who have served a very high percentage of their sentence, or who are in a semi-open regime. They can impose house arrests and electronic controls, but we are not seeing enough awareness on the part of governments with regards to the seriousness of the problem and the catastrophic impact it is having on the region’s prisons,” Muñoz warns.

The release of 1,100 people was ordered weeks ago in New York, for example, and in California, early release has been decreed for 3,500 people who were about to serve their sentences for non-violent crimes. In El Salvador, a few hundred people have been released from prison, the same in Chile and Argentina. But these numbers are a drop in the ocean.

Muñoz concludes with this warning: “An outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons is also a threat to the rest of the population. If there is an outbreak in the prisons, then the virus will get out. Such a concentrated incubation and contagion will be extremely dangerous for neighbouring populations and the entire population [in general].” This article has been translated from Spanish.

With additional reporting from Juan Martínez D’aubuisson in El Salvador.

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