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COVID-19 and prisons in Latin America
COVID-19 has had significant impacts on prisons in Latin America, where levels of overcrowding are well above the global average.
Almost all prisons in the region have more prisoners than their allowed capacity, and in some cases, overcrowding is above 200%. This is by no means a coincidence. Data shows that prison populations have doubled in the last fifteen years in most countries in Latin America. Prisons in the region are, clearly, places where COVID-19 can easily spread, and this is why when the virus first arrived, it was expected that governments would adopt urgent measures that would guarantee at least two things: first, the adoption of a non-detention policy to avoid increasing the prison population; and second, the release of selected groups, including pre-trial detainees, to alleviate the dreadful overcrowding situation, and to allow for effective measures against the virus, such as social distancing.
According to the Sociedad de Criminología Latinoamericana (SCL), in more than half of all Latin American countries, over 5% of prison populations are defined as being “at risk,” usually meaning, persons over 65 years old, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing conditions. The data also reveals that most detention centres responded to the virus by limiting inmates’ contact with the outside world, which resulted in tight restrictions on, or the outright elimination, of visitation programs. In some cases, this led to disturbances and riots within certain prisons, where the inmates got together to demand: 1) the right to family visitations (especially given the fact that relatives tend to provide additional food, clothing, and medicines for prisoners in these countries); 2) better living conditions; 3) measures to protect against contagion given the lack of sanitary conditions and PPE. Riots were reported in more than half of the prison systems monitored in the region, and in 46% of the cases there were deaths.
To deal with the pandemic, most countries in the region have adopted some minimum measures of early release and house arrest to reduce overcrowding in their prisons. The SCL records that 69.2% of the countries reported using these measures. However, only a few countries appear to have made serious efforts in this regard. In the Latin American region, the total prison population amounts to 1,732,928 people, of whom only three percent have been released since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (52,351).
This explains the high number of COVID-19 cases in Latin American prisons. Specifically, the data shows that by August, there had been at least, 138,522 cases, and 1,504 deaths in Latin American prisons. According to Connectas, by the first week of August, Brazil had already recorded over 20,000 infected cases, Mexico over 2,000, Central America over 6,000; and Argentina, Chile and Uruguay had recorded 4,000 cases overall. In Mexico, according to the CNDH, inmates are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than regular citizens. Moreover, all of these numbers are underreported, as a lack of information and transparency is a serious issue in the region.
Unfortunately, pre-trial detention is routinely used in Latin America as an investigative tool, making it the rule rather than the exception, and thus creating a problem of massive proportions. In the region, the average number of pre-trial detainees now exceeds 36% of the prison population. However, in some countries, this number has increased to over 60% (data from 2017). For example, in El Salvador and Colombia over 30 percent of the prison population is in pre-trial detention. In Mexico, 40 percent, and in Guatemala, Peru and Paraguay, the number has increased to 60 percent.
Latin America’s judicial systems were already overwhelmed by a crushing number of pre-trial detentions. But now with the backlog of cases worsened by the suspension of judicial activities due to COVID-19, pre-trial detainees are condemned to remain unjustly in prison for years.
In some countries in Latin America, the prison population has actually increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, contrary to what would be expected. For example, in January 2020, Mexico registered a total of 202,221 prisoners, and by June 2020, that number had already increased to 211,999 (an increase of 9,778 prisoners in six months). Moreover, the trend of monthly releases has decreased to 80 persons per month, a staggering number if compared to other years where the average was 440 releases per month. The trend is the same at the national and state levels: the population continues to increase at a fast pace. In all cases, the reason is the same: the overuse and abuse of pre-trial detention.
As of August 31, 2020, the prison population in Honduras stood at 21,670 (148% overcrowded), sixty three percent of whom were pre-trial detainees, and of this number, 1,193 were women in pre-trial detention. In June, the government published Decree-36-2020 aimed mainly at the mandatory review of precautionary measures of pre-trial detention in the case of inmates suffering from underlying conditions, and it opened up the possibility to implement alternatives to incarceration for certain offences stipulating mandatory pre-trial detention. According to the government, since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,263 persons deprived of their liberty have received some form of release or benefit. (Honduras reopened its Courts on June 8, 2020. However, it is a slow process, and as of writing, not all courts have reopened).
In Brazil, in 2019, the CNJ calculated that at least 812.000 persons were deprived of their liberty, of whom 41.5 percent were in pre-trial detention. Brazil’s judiciary was one of the quickest to establish recommendations and guidelines for Courts and Judges aimed at reducing the prison population, promoting preventative health-care procedures, regulating prison visits, and the participation in contingency plans. These measures have had a significant impact in the country. By August, at least 30,000 persons had been released from custody through early releases and other means similar to parole and probation. For example, pregnant women, mothers with children under their care, the elderly, the sick, and non-violent offenders have all benefited the most. However, these groups only amount to 3.3 percent of Brazil’s entire prison population.
In short, for all of the above reasons, we must continue to diagnose, monitor and report what happens inside Latin America prisons, and continue to advocate for the urgent release of pre-trial detainees and other vulnerable groups. This is necessary to alleviate the crisis that threatens the lives and fundamental rights of detainees in the region.
 April: 207,890. May: 209,053. June: 210,287 see https://www.gob.mx/prevencionyreadaptacion/documentos/cuaderno-mensual-de-informacion-estadistica-penitenciaria-nacional
 States present an incarceration rate of 374.6 people per 100,000 inhabitants for the month of June.