Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can the Northern Triangle Contain a Prison Pandemic?

A Honduran prison. // File Photo: Honduran Government. File Photo: Honduran Government.

Hundreds of inmates in prisons across Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, sparking concerns of a humanitarian crisis in the making, along with increased risks of violence and human rights abuses. What implications do the Covid-19 outbreaks in the three Central American nations’ prisons have for both health and security? To what extent are structures in place to effectively manage the outbreaks, and what is the best way for the countries’ governments to deal with the crisis? What effects will the pandemic have on the region’s prison systems in the future, especially in terms of funding and possible reforms?

Barry McCaffrey, retired U.S. army four-star general and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a disaster in the United States, with a fearsome impact on our 2.3 million prisoners. The pandemic will clearly inflame the prisons of the migratory nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. There are very grim consequences to come and few real solutions. Covid-19 has no effective therapies. There is no vaccine. Palliative care is resource intensive. The three nations have a confirmed infection rate of 25,000+ cases in the general population. Their massively overcrowded prison systems had in excess of a thousand cases at the end of May. (Occupancy is 200-400 percent of capacity.) There is zero chance of social distancing for this respiratory illness or quarantine in these fearsome facilities. Resources for hygiene, personal protective equipment and treatment in the prisons are minimal. Outside the prison walls, organized crime is aggressively exploiting the crisis with murder, drug trafficking, extortion and sexual violence. More than 720,000 people have fled their homes to seek safety. There will be little political will to stop pretrial confinement or significantly increase early release to gain space. The economy is in freefall throughout Central America. Remittances are drying up from the United States and elsewhere. The lockdown has hammered the economy. Corruption from authorities and police continue to weaken business. We are watching an ongoing tragedy inside and out of the prison walls.”

Adam Blackwell, vice president for international at Development Services Group and former Canadian ambassador to the Dominican Republic: “I would argue that there are at best weak ‘prison systems’ in these three countries. We were all appalled to see the photos of the gangs lined up in the prisons of El Salvador during the peak of a pandemic. This is not new but unfortunately standard practice—overcrowding is the norm. When I was at the Organization of American States, we developed a methodology (based on international best practices) to test public security systems, including corrections services. In the case of Honduras, we pointed out many of the safety and security issues well before the Comayagua fire, which killed more than 350 inmates in February of 2012. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have lamented the deplorable conditions in these prisons for years. Covid-19 will exacerbate an already volatile situation. There are no easy answers, but a good start would be to implement effective medical testing and screening processes so that those who have the virus can be given the proper treatment and be isolated from the rest of the population and visitors. Effective classification systems would allow those who have completed their sentence or are aged and/or ill to be released, would separate violent repeat offenders from youthful first-time offenders and help in the development of rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism and gradually reduce the incarceration rate, which is still too high. I can only hope that governments realize that the upfront investment of creating effective corrections approaches is cheaper in the long run than the approaches currently in place.”

Yulia Vorobyeva, research fellow at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University: “Prisons have been the epicenter of Covid-19 outbreaks even in the most advanced countries, let alone the decrepit and overcrowded Central American penitentiaries. Occupancy rates, reaching 400 percent in some facilities, coupled with the lack of basic sanitation, have turned these prisons into true virus incubators. Although the prisons have been closed to visitors and some governments began releasing eligible inmates to reduce overload, the response has been slow and insufficient, fraught with low testing rates and flawed information sharing. As a result, prison personnel and newly arrived detainees may continue spreading the virus between the community and the prisons. The poor management of the crisis has broader security implications. The isolation in inhumane conditions, regular violations of basic human rights and the looming threat of disease are a dangerous recipe for acts of aggression and violent prison uprisings. The crisis can be effectively addressed only through concerted measures. The governments should speed up the process of releasing eligible inmates; increase testing capacity; and provide adequate medical care to detainees to deal with mental and physical health issues. The pandemic has exposed serious chronic conditions in the countries’ penitentiary systems. In the long term, governments are likely to reduce funding and neglect reforms while being preoccupied with the economic downturn. In a more optimistic scenario, political leaders could seize the moment and finally treat the disease, rather than its symptoms, by implementing international norms regarding the treatment of prisoners. Which approach will prevail depends only on their political will.”

Tiziano Breda, analyst for Central America at the International Crisis Group: “Covid-19 has seeped into numerous Central American prisons, some of which are among the most dangerous, overcrowded and unhealthy in the world. The three countries have reported more than 350 infected inmates and prison staff, but human rights advocates point to limited testing and a growing number of suspected deaths as evidence of higher numbers. With large parts of Central America’s public health systems already at full capacity, a massive outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Jails in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala house approximately 85,000 inmates, 40 percent of whom are in pretrial custody and may end up being released for lack of evidence in some cases. The prison population in each country is more than twice the official capacity. Even before the pandemic, health conditions were notoriously poor. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported that around 60 percent of tuberculosis cases in El Salvador are in prisons. Jails are also the operational headquarters for criminal groups across the region, with more than 20,000 inmates belonging to gangs, and a site for clashes between them. Four such skirmishes have killed more than 45 inmates in the past six months in Honduras, while President Bukele’s recent decision in El Salvador to mix in shared cells active members of opposing gangs—as a punitive response to a gang-driven uptick in homicides—has raised concerns that internecine violence between them could intensify. So far this has not happened. But increased psychological stress on inmates, aggravated by a ban on family visits and coupled with fear of the virus, creates a fertile ground for possible riots. The health crisis provides governments with an opportunity to address prison systems’ chronic weaknesses and some of the gangs’ core grievances. Authorities could transfer to house arrest or release inmates at high-risk, or nonconvicted ones, as Honduras recently did for 1,600 prisoners, and could also improve hygiene and testing efforts. They may also use some gang members’ eagerness to contribute to fighting the pandemic—by producing face masks or cleaning up prison facilities, for example—to start stepping up rehabilitation programs, which have long been neglected in the region.”

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