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Latin America’s Prisons Get Uglier With Coronavirus

·6 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As coronavirus gales across the Americas, officials from Mexico to Chile have puzzled over how to keep millions locked down at home. Lately, however, another social engineering nightmare has been haunting medical experts and public health officials: How to keep Latin America’s 1.4 million-strong prison population from harm.

A lullaby heard in some governing circles is that safeguarding jails is a lesser problem. As prisoners, by definition, are already locked down, no one has to cajole, exhort or shame them into quarantine. In theory, any hint of illness behind the walls can be quickly identified, isolated and contained by sending the afflicted to a separate cell block. What’s more, as prison populations tend to be younger than the population at large — the overwhelming majority of them under age 40 — they are arguably less vulnerable to a disease known for ravaging the elderly.

Behind the guard towers, the view is less auspicious. Fear of the impending disease has already roiled the region’s jail yards. Last month, a wave of riots, gang violence and mass escapes hit penitentiaries in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. In one day of rage, 23 detainees died and dozens were injured in the mayhem between rival factions at Bogota’s La Modelo prison, one of 13 Colombian prisons rocked by rebellions.

Prisoners in Peru are demanding testing. On March 23, a mutiny over health conditions in an Argentine penitentiary devolved into a gang battle, killing five inmates — one more than coronavirus had nationwide by that point. Elsewhere, detainees bridle at severe safeguards like banning visitors or cancelling temporary leave for less dangerous inmates. Human rights groups are demanding that older detainees or those serving time for lesser crimes be remanded to house arrest. The only certainty is, if authorities fail to stop the outbreak, more troubles will erupt. “The region’s prisons are hugely vulnerable to the outbreak and could wreak havoc on the rest of society as well,” said Robert Muggah, a security analyst at the Igarape Institute.

Latin American prisons were already a blight on the hemisphere. More than 13 of every 100 people behind bars worldwide serve time in Latin America, typically confined two to three or more per airless cell, where murderers mingle with petty thieves. With the world’s fastest growing incarceration rate, Latin America also has a prison population that has grown three times faster than the general population over the last decade. Prone to mass escapes, riots and internecine gang violence, the region’s prisons were never models of correction. It stretches credulity to expect they can also be models of disease control and prevention.

If Latin America’s best hospitals are short of beds, intensive care units and ventilators, conditions are all the more dire for prisoners, a demographic which enjoys few public champions never mind public resources. The problem goes far beyond Venezuela, where the nearly 19,000 inmates in 6,500 penal institutions are just an especially unfortunate subset of a nation — and a region — already grappling with chronic illness and daily life-or-death decisions .

Brazil is the monster in the cage, with more than 813,000 detainees — the world’s third largest prison population — in facilities built for a little over half that many. HIV and AIDS are commonplace. Tuberculosis is rampant: Upon incarceration, a detainee’s risk of coming down with it soars to 30 times that of the general population, and remains high up to seven years after release — a dangerous spillover to the community at large.

Covid-19 presents a different but no less credible threat. While the disease may be less deadly than some viral afflictions, it can tear through a community with no prior exposure. Julio Croda, a scholar of prisoner health at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, reckons that given the relatively younger population behind bars, deaths from an eventual outbreak might not be massive: Around 168 prison deaths if Brazil follows the pattern in Italy for those aged 20 to 40 or as many as 1,008 if China’s fatality rate for the same age group kicks in. Either way, “the possibility is of a huge number of infections in institutions with little access to water and poor hygiene, and where the ability to control disease and isolation is already limited,” Croda told me. “Despite the lower lethality of this outbreak, we could still see a lot of suffering and death.”

Belatedly, the authorities are scrambling to preempt the crisis. Authorities in Sao Paulo state, who oversee some 235,000 prisoners, more than France and Italy combined, know the stakes. Safety protocols include isolating elderly detainees, furloughing older guards and penal system workers, and screening incoming prisoners for illness. “If we spot an infected prisoner we will certainly act to protect those around him,” said Marco Antonio Severo, technical adviser to Sao Paulo’s Penitentiary Management Secretariat. The state has stood up eight new facilities to transfer sick patients, while detainees in four prisons are making surgical masks and goggles to supply the national crisis response.

Much more needs to be done, starting with testing the entire prison population. One bold if controversial measure would be to preempt the contagion by releasing scores of low-level offenders to home arrest and community service. Some 36% of Brazil’s detainees have yet to stand trial, and many have been held so long they’ve already served out their likely sentences were they to be found guilty, according to Jose Vicente da Silva, former head of the National Security Secretariat. The Brazilian courts are still weighing the release of high-risk detainees, to the howls of law-and-order advocates who warn that such indulgences could provoke a plague of street crime.

What Brazilians cannot afford to do is get bogged down in debating the historical failings of the penal code while a pandemic rages. One month into the outbreak, Brazil’s rate of new infections has already surpassed that of the U.S., with more than four times the fatalities of Norway for nearly the same number of cases.

If policy-makers fail to act decisively, those behind bars will not only be even more vulnerable to coronavirus but also risk accelerating Latin America’s biggest crisis in memory — and thereby making everyone a prisoner in their own homes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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