Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Latin America: Cut Prison Crowding to Fight COVID-19

Originally published by Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The unsanitary, overcrowded prisons and juvenile detention centers in most Latin American and Caribbean countries offer prime conditions for outbreaks of COVID-19 that could severely affect the health of detainees and of the population at large, Human Rights Watch said today.

In March 2020, inmates in detention facilities in several Latin American countries rose up to protest a lack of protective measures against COVID-19 and efforts to lock them down. Hundreds escaped, dozens of people were injured, and at least 40 people died in connection with the protests in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, and Brazil.

“An outbreak of coronavirus in Latin America’s prisons would be an enormous public health problem that would affect not just the detainees but also the rest of the population,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There is still time, but the authorities need to act immediately to avoid an entirely foreseeable health disaster.”

Once inside detention facilities, COVID-19 could spread quickly and infect staff, contractors, visitors, lawyers, and inmates who are later released, thus carrying the disease back to the surrounding communities and the population at large.

On March 16, hundreds of inmates escaped “semi-open” facilities, which lack armed guards, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, after the authorities announced that they were canceling a holiday leave because of COVID-19. On March 18, 84 inmates escaped a Venezuelan prison and 10 were later killed by law enforcement after authorities canceled access to visitors, who provide detainees with food.

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