New York —

Nervousness about the pandemic took over prisons in Latin America, where overcrowding is an ally of the virus

“Here we are sleeping on top of each other,” says Alonso, an inmate in a prison in Colombia where at least 400 inmates are infected with coronavirus.

His phrase is not an exaggeration: the cells of the Villavicencio Penitentiary and Prison Establishment, in the east of the country, are made for four people, but they sleep three or four times more inmates.

The image is repeated throughout Latin America, where prison overcrowding is 60%, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), a London-based think tank.

That is to say: si there space for 100 people, they live in it an average of 160.

“There are people sleeping in the hallways, some in the bathrooms, others who share a bed,” says Alonso, a pseudonym he inherited from his time in the guerrillas.

EPA (Villavicencio Mayor’s Office) At least 400 inmates in Villavicencio prison, in eastern Colombia, have tested positive for coronavirus.

Since the first positive case of coronavirus was detected, the tension reigns in the courtyards of the Villavicencio prison: escape attempts, protests – peaceful and violent – and riots they are reported every two or three days in a prison that has space for 1,000 inmates, but houses more than 1,700.

Nervousness spreads through prisons throughout the region. In Lima, Peru, a riot for fear of contagion from coronavirus left 9 dead and more than 60 wounded; in another similar incident in Guanare, Venezuela, more than 40 people lost their lives.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil1,200 inmates escaped from various jails amid riots. In Argentina, 1,200 prisoners are on hunger strike to protest “subhuman” conditions.

And in El Salvador, a country with one of the highest overcrowding rates in the region, the government of Nayib Bukele He gathered all gang members imprisoned by rival groups in small spaces and released some controversial photos that went around the world.

Virtually all Latin American prisons suffer overcrowding. It is the opposite of what is needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus: social isolation.

Releases to decongest

“What fuels overpopulation is the increase in insecurity, the lack of resources to improve infrastructure, because it is an issue without electoral sympathy, and the prevalence of a judicial dogma that the solution to crime, for any crime, is deprivation of liberty, ”José Miguel Vivanco, director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, tells the BBC.

Vivanco is one of the activists who have supported the pardon decrees to decongest the prisons that have been implementado in various countries of the world, from Iran to Argentina.

In the latter, almost 2,000 people went into house arrest with great controversy, since among them were some convicted of crimes such as rape, homicide and corruption.

Colombia also issued a decree of exonerations whereby fifty inmates in vulnerable situations went home. The government hopes remove 4,000 prisoners, out of a prison population of 170,000, with an overcrowding rate of 53%, according to official figures.

In Peru, which saw the tension caused by two infections in a prison produce a serious riot, the government hopes to release 3,000 prisoners. At least 13 inmates have died and 500 are infected across the country.

The massive flight in Brazil occurred when the government prohibited the departure of 34,000 prisoners who had parole benefits. The images of the fugitives running through the streets of Sao Paulo went around the world.

The situation is increasingly desperate in the region’s prisons, where the average number of prisons is overpopulated by 150%.

No visits or new detainees

In addition to releases, two measures that are repeated throughout Latin America are the prohibition of visits in prisons and the sending of detainees to penitentiary centers.

Both, according to the experts consulted, have consequences: the first generates more tension within the prisons and the second transfers overcrowding to temporary detention centers.

Vivanco, from HRW, assures that “prohibiting visits promotes the possibility of riots, but also does not eliminate the possibility of contagion unless you had them on an island, without guards, without doctors, without food.”

Laura Zamora, a transsexual woman sentenced to 50 years in the La Picota prison in Bogotá, adds: “Without visits men try to abuse more of us

And Andrés Cruz, an inmate at the La Modelo center in Bogotá, where a riot a month ago left 23 dead, regrets: “With the prohibition of exits they took away the only breath we have.”

Originally arrested for corruption, Cruz has been imprisoned for 8 months despite the fact that his judicial process has not started.

The prisoners argue that they are not sentenced to death because they fear that a coronavirus infection in a prison is a kind of death sentence.

Latin American judicial systems are among the slowest in the world, according to the World Bank.

And the ICPR reports that South America is the region of the world with the most prisoners in preventive detention: a50% of inmates have no conviction.

“As things are happening, it is a long way to see and hug the family. I even think that I will never see them. If the virus catches me here, will I die? ”Says Cruz, 50.

More than overcrowding

Overcrowding is not the only obstacle preventing the virus from being contained in Latin American prisons, the sources consulted agree.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), 20% of prisons in Latin America does not have access to clean waterregularly and 40% of prisoners sleep on the floor.

Rafael Pérez, imprisoned 8 years ago in the Cúcuta prison, Colombia, relates: “There are people here with hepatitis, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, HIV. If we don’t have care for them, much less for the coronavirus. ”

According to the IDB, 71% of inmates in the countries studied say they have received medical care.

Twitter @PresidenciaSVE The government of El Salvador released images of inmates piled up in rows, some of them wearing masks.

Back in Villavicencio, in Colombia, Johan Alarcón, a prison guard and president of the prison union, tells BBC Mundo that of the 400 infected with coronavirus, 40 are civil servants.

“The staff who work in prison are as vulnerable as prisoners,” he says.

And he complains that they have to make raffles and collects to buy the protection material for the inmates. “We are mitigating the virus with infusions,” he says.

And he denounces an “abandonment of the State”, which “sends protective material to make up, to become the one who does something”

“No one was prepared for this,” he continues, “and as things happened we made mistakes. We didn’t know what the symptoms were, we didn’t know how to isolate, or that there were asymptomatic people. ”

Alarcón concludes: “The virus here is doing what it wants

“Obligation to protect prisoners”

In line with these complaints, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a statement on Tuesday in which it denounces that many Latin American States have not taken adequate measures to avoid contagion in their prisons nor to avoid the episodes of violence in recent weeks, “abusing the use of force to regain control of these prison facilities.”

.In several Argentine prisons, such as Villa Devoto, in the capital, there were riots of prisoners demanding release from the coronavirus pandemic.

From OHCHR, they recall that governments have “the obligation to protect the physical and mental well-being of prisoners.”

They also express concern about countries where citizens have been detained for violating forty orders, “which has increased the risk of infection.”

And they make special mention of El Salvador, denouncing that the “extremely harsh security measures recently imposed in prisons, can be considered as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and can exacerbate the precarious hygiene conditions” in penitentiary centers.

Furthermore, they request that States take measures to prevent further spread of the virus in prisons, increasing health services for prisoners and testing for coronavirus, as well as for prison workers, also providing them with the necessary protective equipment.

They also request that prisoners be allowed maintain a minimum level of contact with family members and they welcome the measures taken by some governments to free prisoners more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as those with pre-existing diseases, pregnant women, elderly prisoners or those with disabilities.

And they encourage more steps to be taken to decongest prisons, releasing prisoners with short sentences for non-violent crimes, as well as minors and those detained for immigration offenses.