The novel coronavirus pandemic has posed great challenges for policymakers, especially in countries with few resources and little influence on the international stage.
In addition to the tasks of managing health systems and avoiding economic and social collapse, another question has arisen since the start of the pandemic in Latin America: what to do with the population deprived of their liberty?
With the worsening of Covid-19 in the region, which has the highest dissemination rates in the world, the situation in prison systems deserves increased attention from society and from criminal justice administrators.
A scenario of new virus variants, underreporting and a possible third wave can lead to a dramatic picture of infections and deaths for inmates and professionals working in prison systems.
Two concerns arose early in the spread of the disease. One was the possibility of biological genocide in prison systems, marked by overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and limited access to medical services.
The other focused on the possibility that penitentiary parks serve as time bombs for the contamination and recontamination of populations, due to the significant flow that characterizes prisons.
Higher incarceration rates
According to data from the WPB (World Prison Brief, Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research), Latin American countries have more than 1.6 million people deprived of their liberty (15.55% of prisoners worldwide), with an average rate of 273 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Between 2006 and 2016, the prison population in Latin America increased by more than 660,000 people, an increase of about 71%.
El Salvador, Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil are the Latin American countries with the highest incarceration rates, well above most other countries in the world. Haiti, the country with the lowest incarceration rate in the bloc, is near the median of global rates.
With the increase in incarceration rates in a decade, Venezuela, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua have more than doubled their numbers. While Cuba and Mexico have retracted on this indicator.
Faced with this huge contingent of people detained by the states, the new coronavirus pandemic has required that several measures be taken to control the spread of the disease in prisons.
These attitudes can be thought of in three distinct phases: the first actions, taken under the impact of the discovery of the virus and the recognition of its seriousness and its extent; the valley, the period between the first and the second wave in Latin America from the third quarter of 2020 to the end of the same year; and the emergence of new viral variants in 2021.
Divergence between punitive activists and pro-excarceration groups
What all these periods have in common is the intensification of the quarrel between more punitive groups and supporters of alternative forms of conflict resolution, in particular the pro-excarceration groups.
In the first phase, the immediate measure in several cases was the suspension of activities in the prison system, including: family visits, hearings, workshops, educational activities, etc.
This action increased the isolation of prisoners, hampered access to basic hygiene items and triggered a wave of protests and rebellions in several units during the first months of the pandemic.
In the second phase, the standoff between defenders of fewer prisoners and those in favor of more punishments intensified.
In Brazil, which has 45% of detainees in the region, advocates of incarceration have entered into a rhetorical feud, arguing that there would be harm to society by freeing “dangerous criminals” and claiming that isolation prisoners would guarantee more security to prisoners, as the risk of contagion and death would be lower in prison.
Among the public decision-makers who have made statements to this effect, we can cite the ministers Sérgio Moro (former Minister of Justice) and Luiz Fux (Minister of the Federal Supreme Court).
On the other hand, recommendation n ° 62, of March 17, 2020, of the CNJ (National Council of Justice) advises courts and magistrates to adopt preventive measures against the spread of infection with the new coronavirus within the system. prison and socio-educational environment. system.
Among these are recommendations for health control and extrication, such as freedom for people from groups at risk and progression of sentences. Studies on the impacts of this recommendation show that there has been no change in the work of judges or a significant reduction in the prison population.
The first counterpoint to the more punitive positions is the fact that a large contingent of the imprisoned population has not committed violent crimes or is in pre-trial detention.
As to the position that prisons are safer places, there is a demographic misunderstanding when comparing the general population with the prison population. Indeed, the second group is mainly made up of young people who, until the appearance of new strains of the disease, are the group least susceptible to infection and death.
The need to prioritize inmates in vaccination
However, as of January 2021, there is an exchange of positions on mortality rates between the prison population and the general population. The main explanation for the phenomenon is the advent of new variants of the disease.
Two points attract attention. The first is the acceleration of deaths from January 2021, especially from April of the same year.
Second, the sharp increase in deaths recorded by the CNJ of servers. Considering that the number of professionals working in the Brazilian prison system is much lower than the total number of inmates, this indicates an underreporting of deaths among people deprived of their liberty in Brazil.
If, on the one hand, it is the duty of States to preserve the lives of their guards, on the other hand, prisons are not separate societies, impacting and being impacted by the spread of diseases in this flow: inside and outside the units.
In Brazil, the solution to the problem is to take magistrates’ recommendation 62 seriously and, of course, to prioritize the prison population in the vaccination plan, obviously including domestic workers and family members.
Given the scarcity of vaccines and the slowness of vaccination throughout Latin America, it is essential to understand the importance of vaccinating this specific group – for the preservation of life, for the fulfillment of constitutional commitments and for the preservation of the whole of society.