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Commentary: Mexico prison conditions deeply concerning amid COVID-19 outbreak

FairTrialsAdmin - March 31, 2020 - COVID-19 Updates, Commentary, Prison conditions

According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia (INEGI), there are currently in Mexico over 202,337 people in prisons and 37% of prisons are overcrowded. Nationally, 46% of detained individuals share a cell with more than five people and in some states the number of people per stay is much higher. In the State of Mexico, the entity with the largest prison population, 37% of the inmates share a cell with more than 15 people. A healthy social distancing policy is simply not possible under these circumstances. Furthermore, according to INEGI, 11.2% of this population is over 50 years old and there is a high incidence of diseases that can cause more serious complications with COVID-19.

The lack of water and personal hygiene products make it impossible to achieve the conditions that would prevent mass contagion in detention centers. According to INEGI, 30% of people deprived of freedom do not have access to drinking water in their cells (in the State of Mexico this percentage rises to 52%) while, in state and municipal centers, only 7.6% of people receive personal care products from the institution. In addition to the deplorable conditions of prisons in Mexico, it is important to highlight that 38.5% of those who are deprived of their freedom have not even been sentenced, according to the latest edition of the Cuaderno Mensual de Informacion Estadistica Penitenciaria Nacional (October 2019).

The only official response, as of today, has been the suspension of visitation in some federal detention centers. However, this measure is not enough, and it comes with some setbacks. Governments should take into consideration that in most detention centers (especially non-federal ones) it is the families and not the institutions that provide food, medicine, water and other items to the imprisoned population. In this sense, denying entry to visitors would also undermine the well-being of those deprived of freedom.

Civil society and human rights organizations have urged the government for a more coherent and comprehensive response.

The main problems identified are:

  1. The lack of data
  2. Overcrowded prisons
  3. The suspension of family visitations given the context in Mexican detention centers (the family assumes the role that by law belongs to the state, namely to provide for inmates' basic needs: family members provide food, potable water, personal care products, cleaning products, antibacterial products, among other things).
  4. Video-link hearings are possible only at the Federal level. They seem to be almost impossible at the state and local levels. Some localities do not have access to the internet.
  5. Recently riots have taken place in several prisons over the lack of response from the state and fears from inmates of mass contagion. Families are worried, this is not helped by the lack of data and information, and now the fact that they are not able to access their relatives to provide them with basic necessities.

On 17 March 2020 the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) in Mexico demanded urgent action from the government to avoid overcrowding and the massive spread of the disease among migrant persons detained in stations of the National Institute for Migration (INM).

Given the need to take reasonable, preventive and care measures against Coronavirus, the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) requested the National Institute of Migration (INM) to implement precautionary measures to:

  • safeguard the physical and psychological health of migrants housed in migratory stations, provisional stays and shelters of that Institute.
  • protect the personnel who work in such sites, as well as legal representatives, visitors and members of civil organizations that provide services to migrants.
  • provide necessary health products and supplies, and uphold hygiene standards to prevent contagion, including carrying out consistent monitoring and supervision, mainly of the elderly as an especially vulnerable group.

On 18 March 2020 the CNDH published a new communiqué, demanding action to protect the most vulnerable groups of society, including people with disabilities, and people deprived of their freedom.

The CNDH called on the authorities at the three levels of government to take preventive measures to attend to those with disabilities and others who are at a greater risk from Coronavirus, such as the elderly and those who are institutionalized in shelters, psychiatric hospitals, social reintegration centers, and homes, among others.

The CNDH urged the government to adopt specific protocols for prevention, attention and care, in order to protect people with disabilities who are institutionalized in prisons, shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and social reintegration centers, among others.

On 18 March 2020, a group of fourteen civil organizations published another communiqué urging the government to change its detention practices and “depressurize” their prisons in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing will not be possible unless the prison population is reduced. The organizations urged the federal and state governments to implement immediate special measures in detention centers to prevent the spread of COVID-19; to change the detention practices of security institutions to prevent further saturation of Fiscalias and penitentiary centers; and to urgently accelerate the release of women and people at high risk to protect the population. More specific recommendations included:

1) To adopt a policy of non-detention of people for non-violent crimes, as is the case for transportation and possession of illegal substances or administrative offenses. Moreover, as mandated by the Constitution, preventive detention should be the exception, and the government should make use of other precautionary measures.

2) Release women who are detained for non-serious and non-violent offenses. This proposal is part of an Amnesty Law, which has already been presented in Congress and whose approval must be accelerated;

3) Release elderly detainees, as stated in the National Law of Criminal Execution in its article 146, and all detainees who are at high risk of developing complications from COVID-19, among them, pregnant women, people with diabetes, hypertension and HIV.

4) Adopt urgent measures inside the detention centers to guarantee the right to health of persons deprived of liberty.

On March 18, the Council of the Judiciary suspended jurisdictional and administrative activities from March 20 to April 20. This measure does not apply to the supervision courts, to the Specialized Control Courts the Comprehensive Criminal Justice System for Adolescents, the courts specialized in searches and online arrest warrants, or tribunals that must resolve appeals related to internet search warrants.

The criminal Judges of First Instance (Jueces de primera instancia), the Judges of Execution of the Traditional Criminal System (Jueces de Ejecucion de Sentencias del Sistema Tradicional) and the Judges of Execution of the Accusatory Procedural System (Cortes de Ejecucion de Sentencias del Sistema Acusatorio), will implement an “on-call and rotation” system to resolve urgent cases that do not admit delay.

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