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COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to Unrest in Prisons Around the Globe

by Matt Clarke

The COVID-19 pandemic, or rather government officials’ inept reaction to the pandemic, has led to unrest in prisons around the world—especially in South America and the Middle East. This has resulted in the escape of hundreds and the death of dozens of prisoners.

The typical initial response to the pandemic was for prisons to suspend visitation. Americans might see this as a minor inconvenience in an era of social isolation outside of prisons, but, in many poorer countries, visitors are a literal lifeline—bringing their loved ones food, clothing, and medicine. For those prisoners, suspension of visitation is life-threatening. It also causes the prisoners high levels of anxiety about the welfare of their families while simultaneously making the families worry about their incarcerated loved ones.

Often accompanying the suspension of visitation is a ban on phone calls (if they were available to begin with) and a slow down or stoppage of mail as guard shortages cause the prison administrations to shift staff away from the mail room and to higher priority areas or limit the personnel entering the prison to essential positions. This lack of communication, along with a frequent failure of prison administrations to inform prisoners about COVID-19 and the status of the prison with respect to the pandemic, generates additional anxiety and frustration that can boil over into rebellion.



On March 17, 2020, hundreds of prisoners escaped from four semi-open prisons or prison wings in Tremembe, Porto Feliz, and Mirandopolis in Sao Paulo state after the traditional Easter furloughs were canceled and visitation restricted. A statement by prison officials said it was necessary to cancel the furloughs to prevent the 34,000 prisoners under the semi-open regime from returning to prison and potentially bringing coronavirus with them.

The human rights news website Ponte estimated that 1,500 prisoners had escaped. Videos emerged showing hundreds of prisoners fleeing down streets and across a soccer field on a beach.

Although bloody prison disturbances and escapes are common in Brazil, the pandemic provided a whole new level of stress for the country’s 234,000 prisoners, a third of whom have no on-site healthcare facilities available and 9,000 of whom are over 60 years of age.



In March 2020, protests about the administration’s lack of response to the pandemic erupted in 13 penitentiaries across Colombia. There were violent clashes with prison guards in several prisons, the worst in Bogota’s Modelo prison where at least 23 prisoners were killed in what Justice Minister Margarita Cabello described as a “massive and criminal escape attempt.” She went on to claim that there was “no sanitation problem” in La Modelo.

Oscar Sanchez, 42, a prisoner at La Picota, another Bogota prison, described the protests as “a massacre that until now has taken more lives than coronavirus in Colombia,” which at that time had 231 confirmed cases and two deaths.

“We are trying to launch an SOS,” said Sanchez, who added that the prisons were overcrowded, the administration was not giving prisoners information on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, and they feared guards would introduce it into the prison. “If there is one infection, it would be a time bomb.”



A ban on prisoners’ families bringing them food during visitation ignited a disturbance at Los Llanos prison in Portuguesa that left at least 47 prisoners dead and 75 injured. The 4,000 prisoners at Los Lanos survive on food brought by relatives, but such deliveries have been banned since March, due to COVID-19 and food shortages across the country, partly due to U.S. sanctions against the leftist government. Guards have been stealing food and some prisoners have been eating stray animals. Desperate, prisoners crowded the prison entrance, demanding change. Prison Minister Maria Iris Varela claimed the uprising was an attempt to escape. Another COVID-19-related disturbance occurred in mid-March 2020 at the Reten de Caimas prison in Zulia state, resulting in 10 prisoners’ deaths and several escapes. The human rights group Venezuelan Prison Observatory said the prisons are severely overcrowded.



Nine prisoners were killed during what authorities described as an attempt to “facilitate a mass breakout” at the Miguel Castro Castro jail in Lima. The jail has a capacity of 2,000, but holds 5,500 prisoners. The disturbance was sparked by a huge wave of COVID-19 in Peru’s jails, infecting over 600 prisoners with two fatalities at Miguel Castro Castro just before the disturbance. Sixty guards, five police officers and two other prisoners also were injured.


Dominican Republic

The COVID-19-related deaths of five prisoners at the La Victoria National Penitentiary in Santa Domingo led to an uprising by prisoners seeking release from the 1,500-capacity prison that houses 9,000. Prisoners used smuggled cellphones to release video of them setting fire to mattresses and throwing objects at guards and police while being sprayed with rubber-coated bullets.

At least five prisoners and a guard were injured in the melee.



More than a dozen prisoners escaped during an uprising at a 6,000-bed medium-security prison in Foggia after prison officials announced plans to restrict visitors. Another dozen prisoners died of drug overdoses after breaking into the prison’s infirmary during the March 18, 2020, disturbance.



Egypt’s 114,000 prisoners live in filthy and severely overcrowded conditions without running water, adequate ventilation, or health care. Now they also live in fear of coronavirus. Some prisoners at Cairo’s sprawling Tora prison complex staged a week-long hunger strike to protest poor conditions, a lack of information about COVID-19, and a failure to disinfect cells, according to a human rights lawyer who helps prisoners.

Egypt’s prisons are overflowing with people who were arrested for protesting the government and charged with “misusing social media” and/or “helping a terrorist group.” When the family of one such prisoner, who was been held in Tora for over a year after he held up a placard saying “Freedom for prisoners” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protested prison conditions, they too were arrested and charged with “misusing social media.”


Sri Lanka

A protest against a ban on visitors, poor food quality, and overcrowding at the Anuradhapura prison in Columbo led to a scuffle with guards. The guards opened fire and eight prisoners were hit, two fatally. The prisoners depended on the visitors to bring adequate food. The country’s prisons have a capacity of 800, but hold up to 5,000 prisoners.

The prisoner unrest in counties that refuse to take steps to ameliorate the pandemic show that even the severely abused will only take so much before rebelling—even at the cost of their lives. Prison officials throughout the world are accustomed to withholding information and expecting blind obedience. The pandemic may introduce them to a new paradigm as prisoners fear mass incarceration will lead to mass death. 



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