COVID-19 cases rise in overcrowded Central American prisons

Panama, May 29 (efe-epa).- With almost 1,000 prisoners infected with COVID-19 in Central American prisons, and one death, the worst is feared due to overcrowding in the jails where it is impossible to maintain basic measures to control the spread of the new coronavirus.

“I know how prisons are, how (inmates) bathe – that is not bathing for God’s sake! And it is part of the overcrowding. The prison structures themselves do not allow us to attend to the minimum sanitary measures” that the control of a pandemic demands, the commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Panamanian Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, told EFE Friday.

The commissioner noted that sanitation and overcrowding problems affect prisons across the continent “with very rare exceptions.”

Amid the pandemic, the IACHR considers that the situation in Panama’s prisons is “critical,” since the prison population “is being disproportionately impacted” by COVID-19.

According to official figures, Central America has accumulated more than 25,290 infections and at least 680 deaths from COVID-19, and Panama is the most affected with 320 deaths and 12,131 confirmed cases.

In the prisons of Panama there are 503 cases, according to information published the local media citing government sources, and the majority (333) are from the Santiago de Veraguas prison, which has 503 inmates.

The case figures vary daily given “the large number of swabs being carried out” in these facilities, where the infection of 26 custodians and officials has also been confirmed, official sources told EFE on Friday.

The new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has been detected in four prisons of the 16 for adults that Panama has, and isolation is the protocol that is applied.

In El Salvador, authorities have reported that 142 inmates from four of its 25 prison facilities are infected with COVID-19, as well as at least four custodians.

Among the sick are 33 inmates of a psychiatric ward, which led a prison surveillance division to question the General Directorate of Penal Centers and the Ministry of Health regarding the spread of the virus among inmates with mental illness.

“I was in El Salvador in December” and there were people “deprived of freedom in provisional detention with overcrowding of 900 percent” in one center – “there was no room for anyone there,” said Arosemena de Troitiño.

The Honduran authorities have reported 30 inmates infected with COVID-19, 28 of them in the National Penitentiary, the main one in the country, and a single death, the only one officially reported so far in the region’s prisons.

In Guatemala, there are four prisoners with COVID-19 – two women and two men – detected in three jails in the country, which has a total prison population of 26,160 inmates, 52 percent serving a sentence and 48 percent in preventive detention.

Authorities have said that prisoners infected with coronavirus will be transferred to a prison in Guatemala City.

In Nicaragua, where the government has been criticized for its lax reaction to the pandemic, there are no official figures of COVID-19 cases in prisons, but relatives of “political prisoners” report that some 38 to 45 detained opponents have contracted it.

Ordinary prisoners have counted between four and six deaths from the virus inside the jails and have also reported that some staff have been sent home for presenting symptoms of COVID-19.

Central American nations have suspended or limited visits to prisons, which register overcrowding levels ranging from 30 percent in the case of Costa Rica – the only country in the region that has not reported COVID-19 in its jails – to more than 200 percent, as is the case of Honduras.

Now “there is a need for the judicial system to assume its responsibility,” because one of the causes of overcrowding is the excessive use of preventive detention, said the IACHR commissioner, who added that the vast majority of prisoners in the region have not yet been sentenced by a judge.

“It is necessary to apply what the Code allows – that implies a review of the situation of those deprived of freedom who may benefit from a measure other than detention” thereby acting “in compliance with inter-American standards in the matter of human rights,” said Arosemena de Troitiño.

The response to the prison overcrowding, exacerbated by the pandemic, “is not short-term, but positions must be taken immediately” to begin paying off “the system’s debts,” added the inter-American commissioner. EFE-EPA

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