Colombia’s Villavicencio prison faces COVID-19 emergency

Bogotá, Apr 23 (efe-epa).- Central Colombia’s Villavicencio prison has become one of the main centers of COVID-19 in the country, with nearly 100 infections and three deaths, a situation on the verge of a health catastrophe.

In the prison, the first cases of coronavirus were detected two weeks ago and since then the number of infected people has continued to grow among inmates and staff.

The poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding of Colombian prisons, such as Villavicencio, which has 1,776 prisoners in a space built to house 899, have led to the proliferation of infections and alarmed the authorities of the city, capital of the department of Meta.

“Today… the municipality’s team of epidemiologists requested about 2,000 additional tests from the national government, which is important to validate the real infection situation in the city’s jail,” said the mayor of Villavicencio, Felipe Harman.

The first case was that of a 63-year-old man who died of COVID-19 on Apr. 7, six days after leaving prison, forcing the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC) to activate its health emergency protocol. However, a few days later two other cases appeared and last week there were 15 infected, Wednesday 40 and Thursday another 13, now for a total of 91 cases and three deaths.

This figure represents two thirds of the 136 cases of COVID-19 that exist in the entire department of Meta and the prison exceeds infections in entire regions of the country, such as Huila (81), Nariño (62), Norte de Santander (60) and Quindío (55), among others.

Villavicencio’s health secretary, Tanya Cortés, told reporters that of the 91 infected, 58 are prisoners, including the three who died, and 31 cases correspond to guards and administration personnel, plus a chef and a nurse.

The outbreak in the prison spread panic among the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods – 20 de Julio, La Vainilla and Antonio Ricaurte – where households fear the virus could also spread outside the walls.

For that reason, the Mayor’s Office and the governor’s office of Meta together with INPEC established an isolation plan for the prison’s inmates and staff.

Additionally, they will increase surveillance on the surrounding streets, disinfect them and provide more assistance to families in the area to keep people at home because, despite the mandatory nationwide lockdown, many still step out.

“We are patrolling the entire prison with the National Police and… we are going to prioritize the aid sector, but it is important that people also understand the level of risk they face and take care of themselves, we need you to stay home,” said the mayor.

The alarm about the danger posed by the arrival of the coronavirus to the country’s jails was raised by the prisoners themselves the night of Mar. 21 when they mutinied in 13 prisons to demand better sanitary conditions and protection against the epidemic that at that time was only just beginning to appear in Colombia.

The protest ended with 23 inmates killed and 83 wounded in La Modelo prison in Bogotá, in the worst incident of its kind in the country in recent memory.

The Minister of Justice, Margarita Cabello Blanco, then said that the riots had nothing to do with the sanitary conditions and that what happened was a large and criminal attempt to escape.

However, other authorities and human rights organizations have long denounced the poor conditions in Colombian prisons and are now asking the government to expedite the release of prisoners with health problems, who are elderly or who have served two thirds of their sentence.

Leftist senator Iván Cepeda and the Foundation Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners this week requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to instate precautionary measures to allow the Colombian state to take measures to protect the lives of more than 20,000 inmates.

“The ten prisons on which we request precautionary measures are in Bogotá, Medellín, Villavicencio, Jamundí (Valle del Cauca), Santander and Chocó, which have more than 20,000 people deprived of liberty, of which 2,453 are women,” Cepeda told EFE.

According to the senator, the decree that regulates prison releases and allows house arrest “is insufficient” because it is not possible to reduce the overcrowding in the prisons.

In Colombia, as of last month, there were 119,368 prisoners in jails with the capacity for 80,763, which represents an overcrowding rate of 50 percent, leaving the population vulnerable to an epidemic that on Thursday has left 4,561 infected and 215 deaths in the country. EFE-EPA


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