Rebellions Highlight how Prisons in Latin America are Not Prepared for COVID-19

May 9, 2020

As the numbers of cases of coronavirus rise in Latin America and the Caribbean, the concern of an outbreak in highly concentrated and under-resourced populations continues to grow. For this reason, prisons and juvenile detention centers in Latin America and the Caribbean are at risk for a severe outbreak of COVID-19. An outbreak of COVID-19 would not just put the inmates at risk, but also staff, contractors, visitors, lawyers, and the neighboring communities. Any employee or visitor risks contracting the virus and transmitting the virus into the community (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Violence and overcrowding within prison systems in Latin America, present health and safety concerns to health professionals (Call, 2020). Inmates within these prisons protested the absence of preventative measures and protection against COVID-19. During a series of riots throughout detention facilities in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, hundreds of inmates escaped and numerous died as a result of inadequate protection against the virus (Human Rights Watch, 2020). As prison funding has been cut due to the economic demands of the coronavirus, prisons are struggling to manage with limited personnel and resources.   

On March 16, 1,379 inmates escaped during rebellions in several prison units in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Of the escapees, 754 were recaptured. These rebellions protested the court order that suspended the temporary departure of 34,000 inmates in an effort to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak (G1 SP, et al., 2020). This number of inmates were able to escape because Sao Paulo detention facilities are “semi-open” due to a limited number of guards (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

On March 18, Venezuelan prisons experienced rebellions because prison visits were suspended due to COVID-19. However, many inmates obtain their meals from these visits, as the state does not have a proper meal program. In these protests, 84 inmates escaped from the San Carlos pre-trial detention center in the state of Zulia. 6 of the escapees have been recaptured, while 10 were killed by law enforcement, and 68 remain free (Agence France Presse, 2020).

Protests and rebellions continued on March 21 in Colombia. Inmates protested the lack of sanitation and access to water, as well as the overcrowding and the limited protection they received against COVID-19. As a result, 23 inmates were killed and 83 were injured in the La Modelo prison riots (Human Rights Watch, 2020 and Ministerio de Justicia, 2020).

On March 22, 2 inmates were killed after a riot regarding the lack of protection against COVID-19 in the El Milagro prison in Peru (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Also, 6 inmates and 11 staff were injured during these rebellions. Additionally, 5 inmates died as a result of rebellions in the prisons, Coronda and Las Flores, in Argentina on March 23 and 24 (Provincia de Santa Fe, 2020). During these protests in Argentina, inmates called for stronger hygiene and safety measures.

It is clear that governments in Latin America and the Caribbean need to pursue the appropriate measures in protecting the basic human rights of inmates in these facilities and ensuring their rights to protection against the coronavirus. A lack of action could result in a massive outbreak that could severely affect the prison’s staff and their families, the surrounding communities, and the general population. In regards to the revolts, local authorities are called by the human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, to investigate the nature of the killings during the protests. The killings may have been a result of the use of excessive force by prison guards and police.  

Human Rights Watch also published an article promoting how governments in Latin America and the Caribbean need to take the appropriate steps to reduce the risk of an outbreak in prison populations. Additionally, on March 25, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) declared that all governments should “reduce prison populations and other detention populations wherever possible” to combat COVID-19 (Human Rights Watch, 2020). In practice, governments could act by releasing those without a charge or who are imprisoned for offenses that should not be criminalized (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Also, Human Rights Watch highlights how it is necessary that governments consider alternatives to imprisonment for those with minor offenses or offenses that are not a threat to the general population. For those who cannot be released from prison, Human Rights Watch calls governments to ensure access to water, hygiene products, information about the coronavirus, appropriate testing and screening for COVID-19 and providing physical and mental health services to all inmates. Additionally, they highlight the need for specialized healthcare services for female inmates, as their specific needs are often marginalized within the system (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

Despite the current concerns for the overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions of many prisons in Latin America. Several prisons in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil have taken preventative measures against COVID-19. Chile, Argentina, and Brazil have all taken positive action to prepare for the virus. However, it is evident that as the coronavirus continues to embed itself in daily life, more precautions and preventive measures need to be pursued by local and national governments in order to protect vulnerable populations such as the staff and inmates of prisons.

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About Author(s)

Carley Clontz
Carley is an undergraduate senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is studying Economics, Spanish, French, Global Studies, and Latin American Studies. Through academic and research programs, Carley has traveled to Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. Her articles focus on human rights violations, economic and political developments, and systemic violence.