Inmate uprisings have ripped through prisons in Latin America amid COVID-19 outbreaks, offering further evidence that the region’s prison systems are buckling under the pressure of the pandemic.
A survey of 18 countries found that 11 had recorded prisoner riots in recent months, according to a June report published by the Center for Latin American Insecurity and Violence in conjunction with the Latin American Society of Criminology. Six countries saw prisoners die amid the riots, according to the report.
Across the region prisoners demanded more visits with family members -- who often provide them food -- improved sanitary conditions to avoid contagion, and increased use of personal protective equipment by prison staff.
The countries surveyed included Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Belize, Paraguay, Panama, Colombia, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina, Guatemala, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Bolivia, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. A total of 27 prison systems were part of the study, as penitentiaries in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil were broken down to include state and federal systems.
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Fears of coronavirus' spread through prisons led many countries in the region to implement inmate release programs to ease overcrowding. Nearly 70 percent of the prison systems surveyed released prisoners, mostly those susceptible to complications from the disease and non-violent offenders, the report found.
Yet the releases were extremely limited. Five prison systems reduced their prison population by less than 1 percent, and another nine reduced theirs between one to five percent. Only three managed to achieve higher reductions: Paraguay released between 5 to 10 percent of its prisoners, and Chile and Nicaragua released up to 15 percent.
In comparison, Paraguay's prison system currently holds three times the amount of inmates it is equipped to secure, while Nicaragua has double, according to the report's findings.
The report also examined the toll that the coronavirus has had on prison staff, reporting that two out of three systems had personnel test positive for COVID-19.
Researchers warned of the further spread of COVID-19 within Latin America’s prisons, stating that "overpopulation will continue to grow," and that more inmates and prison staff are “likely to die.”
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Inmate riots will persist as long as reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among prisoners continue to mount in Latin American countries, where overcrowded and unsanitary jails are Petri dishes for the virus and prisoners have little recourse to demand protection.
A look at local news media reports of positive tests among prison populations shows that the virus has been found in jails in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Brazil. Others around the region are in all likelihood facing similar outbreaks.
The virus has spread even where officials have released prisoners to ease overcrowding -- a move that can’t possibly ameliorate years of jails being overloaded. In Argentina, inmates went on hunger strike and scaled prison walls to demand being allowed to serve their sentences at a home. The government's release of 800 prisoners, however, was criticized by victims' rights activists and sparked protests against the policy.
Other measures have helped to create a tinderbox. The deadliest riot occurred in May at the Los Llanos facility in Venezuela, when 50 prisoners were killed and 75 more injured after protests broke out over prisoners’ concerns about hunger. Visits by family members had been barred due to the pandemic, but the vast majority of prisoners in Venezuela depend on their loved ones for food and other essentials.
A lack of medical attention and sanitary supplies has also raised tensions among prisoners. According to the report, less than a third of 23 prison systems reported having the ability to test for the virus in the first two months of the outbreak.
In Colombia, the Villavicencio jail, south of Bogota, saw some 700 of its 1,800 prisoners test positive for coronavirus in early May. At that time, the jail counted only two health providers, a nurse and an assistant nurse, both of whom also contracted the virus, El Espectador reported. Colombia was one of the first countries in the region to see deadly rioting within its prisons as the virus spread in March.
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In Peru, prisoners angered over the lack of protection and sanitary supplies rioted, setting mattresses ablaze. At that time in late April, more than 600 prisoners had contracted the virus and 13 had died from it, Reuters reported.
Brazil’s jails -- long run by powerful prison gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) -- have seen prisoners break free and guards taken hostage.
Prison staff have also been sickened, exacerbating an already massive shortage of corrections officers in the region’s jails.
InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley wrote in a Foreign Affairs editorial that the neglect of basic healthcare, sanitation and nutritional needs within Latin America’s penitentiary systems has further empowered prison bosses and gangs during the pandemic -- making them increasingly seen by prisoners as the only source of help amid the spread of the virus.
Lacking basic protections, prisoners are bound to have their fears of contagion stoked by COVID-19 outbreaks -- and that fear alone is enough to spark a riot.