Brazil’s unsanitary and overcrowded prisons are facing a new scourge: the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated health problems and further isolated inmates from their families.
“I’m afraid of losing my husband in prison,” said Monica (name changed), reached by phone, whose husband has been detained for four years in the state of Sao Paulo. “They never had proper (medical) care, but now we’re even more worried.”
Since the discovery of the first prison case in April, the coronavirus has spread rapidly among the more than 748,000 prisoners in Brazil, the third largest prison population in the world. Yet family visits and transfers were suspended from the end of March.
In addition to prison overcrowding, which can reach 300% in poorly ventilated cells, there is water rationing and a deficient diet, which have helped the virus circulate.
“Health in prisons is a big issue, with COVID-19 we don’t know what will happen,” Alexandra Sanchez, public health researcher at the Fiocruz benchmark scientific institute, told AFP.
More than 17,300 prisoners were infected (2.3% of the total) and nearly 100 died from the coronavirus, according to the National Prison Department (Depen).
But the real number of cases is much higher, as in all of Brazil where the epidemic has killed more than 112,000 and infected 3.5 million people.
Only 7.8% of inmates have been tested for COVID-19. “We do not know the real situation,” concedes Ms. Sanchez.
Sol (name changed) is worried about her 29-year-old son, in prison for drug trafficking, in a cell with 41 other inmates, in the same prison as Monica’s husband.
“Mom, I am sick, there are prisoners who have pain and they are not taken care of in the infirmary,” her son wrote to her in one of the few letters she has received since. April.
Some 38% of the 2,095 inmates at Sorocaba II prison in Sao Paulo have tested positive for COVID-19.
“This is a very high rate, the circulation of the virus is impressive,” says Mme Sanchez, who notes that this rate is even worse than that of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro which have the highest prevalence: up to 25%.
The suspension of visits and leaves of absence in the context of day parole provoked mass mutinies and escapes.
The rumor that prison officers were bringing coronavirus into prisons from outside has also caused unrest.
Then it was no longer a rumor, but reality.
Among the 110,000 prison officers, 7,143 were infected and 75 died from COVID-19, according to the National Council of Justice (CNJ).
“This situation is hopeless, because information is being kept from us,” said Sol, who before the pandemic visited his son every two weeks.
Family visits are essential in providing detainees with food and hygiene products. With the coronavirus, mailings have been allowed. But the packages do not always reach their recipient.
Human rights violations
“With this pandemic, we are seeing an increase in human rights violations in prisons,” Leonardo Biagioni de Lima, legal aid coordinator in Sao Paulo, told AFP.
He found during an inspection at Sorocaba II that infected or symptomatic prisoners were sharing the cell with prisoners without symptoms.
The Ministry of Justice claims to have taken “all possible measures”, but according to experts they are insufficient.
De Lima said the courts have been “too timid” in implementing an NYC recommendation for the release of prisoners who have not committed violent crimes.
The Ministry of Justice claims to have extended 49,747 detainees (6.6% of the total), but for lawyers, it could do more, and in particular release 2,000 prisoners who are pregnant or breastfeeding.