Covid-19 and Prisons in Latin America

By Marcelo Bergman

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In the process of doing fieldwork research, I’ve visited more than 30 prisons across the region and conducted surveys of more than 15,000 inmates. During the last 15 years, I have talked to hundreds of inmates who sleep on the floor of their prison cells. Some of them have not been able keep warm at nights because they do not have relatives to provide them blankets. Many of them live with the constant terror of jailhouse violence. 

I have heard prisoners tell me how they are crunched together with ten or even more cellmates in 100-square-feet cells, unable to work or to attend classes. If they become ill, they rarely receive medicines and health care. Drug users have confessed to me that they are exposed to drugs on a daily basis, and must pay for them somehow with money they do not have. 

I have heard imprisoned mothers crying, dreading the moment their children turn four and are no longer allowed to live with their incarcerated mothers. And the vast majority of prisoners have no real hope that in the future their re-entry into society will imply freedom forever. The pandemic arrived to this already precarious world, inflicting fear, bringing uncertainty, and eliciting rebellions. Covid-19 has caused fear, mistrust, conflicts and bloody riots.

I have witnessed heartbreaking scenes in the vicinity of many prisons of the region. Desperate women and children wait to see their relatives in detention. In some cases they can observe from a distance the smoke and fire swirling from the prison as a result of fires set from burnt mattresses, blankets and all types flammable material by mutinous inmates. Those who are waiting know that some prisoners may even lose their lives. Fights and grief are taking over among people deprived of their liberty (PDL) and their families. The pandemic has finally reached the prisons and has not stopped at their doors.

Covid-19 has had significant effects on the prison system. On the one hand, facilities in the region are not prepared for effective social distancing between PDLs, and close contacts between inmates and prison staff are very frequent. On the other hand, many detention centers lack the sanitary conditions to deal with the effects of the pandemic, and there is an alarming shortage of rooms for medical care.

The prison crisis is proportionally more severe in Latin America than in the rest of the world. Overcrowding rates are well above the world average. Almost all of the countries in the region have more prisoners than their stated legal capacity, and in some cases overpopulation exceeds 200%. This overcrowding is the result of a rapid growth in the prison population that in most countries doubled in the last 15 years, and in some cases the number of PDL has tripled in less than 20 years.

Thus, Covid-19 has exposed the huge weaknesses in Latin American prisons, accelerating existing conflicts and challenges. In addition to overcrowding and the scarcity of resources and goods, prison administrations are facing the challenge of attending vulnerable populations, the need to establish new protocols that restrict the essential communication of prisoners with their families, and to address the fear of a massive contagion that will put pressure on Latin America’s already precarious hospital and medical systems of countries. In short, Covid 19 presents a major humanitarian and health care challenge for prison systems in developing countries.

The magnitude of pandemic’s impact on prisons is unknown, but it is certainly becoming a growing threat in all countries. Studies carried out by specialists from the region show that infections in prisons have grown more than 200% in the last two months. Until the beginning of August, Brazil officially had more than 20,000 infections (more than 150 deaths), Mexico more than 2,000 cases (and more than 200 deaths), Central America more than 6,000 infections (more than 300 deaths), the Andean region 17,000 (more than 400 deaths), and the Southern Cone nations more than 4,000 infections (more than 100 deaths). All of these figures are severely underreported. In all of the region’s prisons, there is a shortage of tests, so it is impossible to know the true magnitude of the pandemic, but most likely a significant percentage of the population has been infected.


Those of us who study the difficult situation of our prisons cannot simply observe without becoming sensitive to the despair of those who perceive a real risk of becoming ill while not having the means to truly protect themselves. A group of specialists from the Latin American Society of Criminology (SOCLA) have undertaken a study to evaluate the problems and the challenges posed by the pandemic to Latin American prisons. Although there are no definitive answers, Covid-19 may elicit new perspectives and rethinking of the role of prisons in the region. Most likely, it will become very difficult for countries to keep the current trend of mass incarceration without adequate investment in infrastructure, for which most “bankrupted” countries of the region no longer have the means to fund and support. From the academic world scholars must warn against the “idea” of conceiving jails as “human deposits” that allows citizens to "forget" about the criminals held there. One day, all of them will come out. It is becoming clearer that locking out large number of prisoners has not solved the crime problem in the region.


The challenges: looking ahead

The pandemic poses new challenges to Latin American prisons. In addition to the already severe problem of reducing inmates´ recidivism and protecting their health and other basic rights, Latin American prison systems face at least seven new challenges generated by Covid 19 that are very difficult for the systems to solve:

1) Overcrowding and social distance. It is virtually impossible for prisons in the region to ensure the isolation of infected people. This means that once the virus enters a prison facility it is almost impossible to stop its rapid spread. In many of these detention centers it is believed that more than half of DPLs have been infected, and the number of deaths appears to be severely undercounted.

2) Prison staff. The virus can enter prisons through the large number of prison guards and staff who frequently engage in close contact with inmates. Similarly, the virus can “leave” prisons and be transmitted by prison staff that by going back into their homes and communities circulate and may infect other people in their neighborhood. In short, it is a fallacy to think that the virus would be locked up with the prisoners.

3) Families and visitors. It is well known that the majority of PDLs in the region receive material support and are partly assisted by their own relatives who visit them frequently. They bring in food, medicine, clothing, money and in some cases they even smuggle illegal drugs for their imprisoned relatives. Most inmates in Latin America depend on their families to cope with their incarceration. Given that Covid-19 has caused the suspension of visits, how will this lack of contact between inmates and family members affect living conditions inside prisons? Our study indicates that 95% of prison systems have suspended visits, which has generated PDL´s complaints and conflicts. It will be hard to imagine that inmates will remain calm if visits or delivery of living supplies furnished by relatives is not resumed soon.

4) Conflicts and riots. In more than half of Latin American prison systems there have been riots, many of them produced dozens of deaths and hundreds of people injured. In addition to the obvious causes such as overcrowding and precarious living conditions, conflicts soared because of fear of contagion, the precarious isolation conditions and lack of effective programs, the many requests for greater release programs and the suspension of the visitations with their supply of goods from relatives. Today there is a "tense calm" in all prisons, but it is believed that at any moment, if these challenges are not addressed, there could be a significant lack of control and further riots.

5) Temporary detention centers. To protect locked up inmates, many prison systems have restricted the entry of new prisoners. These are housed in temporary detention centers, or in police stations, in order to undergo a sort of quarantine before they are transferred to prisons. However, these detention centers are even more inhospitable places, and they become rapidly “overcrowded.” Therefore, the spread of the virus and infection diseases could be disseminating precisely in these confinement centers. In short, new admissions in many countries are being housed in temporary detention facilities, turning them into serious epidemiological threats.

6) Early Releases. Covid-19 has caused an “avalanche” of petitions to the justice systems and other administrative bodies in order to grant pre-release benefits to PDLs. The grounds for petition varied: advanced age (more than 60 years old), inmates with previous health conditions, inmates close to serving their entire sentence, and commutation of sentences towards supervised home arrest. According to legal procedures, all these requests must be reviewed by judicial authorities (in Latin America there are no parole boards). Most petitions have been denied. However, in order to reduce prison population, and sometimes responding to humanitarian considerations, many inmates were granted release in recent months. Our data indicate that although the number varies by country, early releases never exceeded five percent of inmates in each country, and usually judges granted petitions to approximately 2% of the total inmate population. Therefore, the impact on overcrowding has been meager at best, given that all countries are severely overpopulated, sometimes by more than 50 percent or 100 percent of their official capacity.

7) Rehabilitation. Although prisons are conceived as institutions for rehabilitation, this goal is rarely achieved. Prisons have education classes, work and job training programs and individual treatment interventions to address violence, anger management, or addiction problems. Our survey indicates that in three out of every four prison systems in the region, all of these programs were suspended. The medium- and long-term consequences from this postponement can be severe. In the first place, because these programs are essential to promote individual capacities for inmates to effectively prepare them for a "second opportunities" once they regain their freedom. Second, the lack of activities increases idleness in prison. The danger of riots, conflicts and crimes orchestrated from prisons increases with the level of idleness.

Many of the problems just described have already existed in Latin American prisons, and the pandemic just exacerbated them. Others are relatively new and require an administrative and policy response. Conceptually, it becomes clearer that the prison metaphor of "locking up the inmates and throwing away the keys," that is, converting prisons into a space of isolation and separation of offenders from the rest of society is actually a fallacy. It is impossible to separate the prisons from the social fabric, and the pandemic has shown that the infections and the problems they generate "come and go" to and from prisons. Moreover, the consequences of mass incarceration, sooner or later, must be thought in light of the social problems they generate. Perhaps the good news is that the challenges posed by the pandemic may elicit a new perspective for the kinds of prison confinements are socially desirable.

Finally, scholars and prison authorities should have a strong commitment to provide responses to the families and those individuals deprived of their liberty so that the time they serve as punishment for their committed offenses does not become a death threat, nor a sentence for living a lifetime in conditions of marginalization and crime. We must contribute from different vantage points and be very creative in delivering good programs so that when inmates get their second chance they are adequately prepared.



Marcelo Bergman is the 2020-21 Cisneros Visiting Scholar of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) at Harvard University. He is a professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies on Insecurity and Violence (CELIV) and directs the master's program in Criminology and Citizen Security at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina. His two most recent books are More Money, More Crime: Prosperity and Rising Crime in Latin America (Oxford 2018), and Prisons and Crime in Latin America (with G Fondevilla) Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2021.