Latin American Region · Article · 15 June, 2020

COVID-19 and the prison system: Actions in Latin America from a global agenda

Iñaki Rivera and Alejandro Forero Experts from the European Union EUROsociAL+ Programme for the implementation of SIRCAIVI.

About a year ago, in February 2019, we published an article[1] in which we reported on the work carried out by the European Union EUROsociAL+ Programme in coordination with the Inter-American Association of Public Defenders (AIDEF), for the designing of a Regional Model of care for victims of institutional violence in prisons. Back then, we were already announcing a project to create a System of Registration, Communication and Comprehensive Care for Victims of Institutional Prison Violence (SIRCAIVI) in several Latin American countries. At that time, we hoped that if it was implemented as a new public policy, it could be very useful in promoting true access to justice and health (physical and mental) for those who, in jails, may suffer inhuman or degrading treatment and even torture.

Recently, this project was launched by EUROsociAL+ in Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica, in coordination with the Public Defenders of these countries.  Those of us who have been working for years from the Observatory of the Penal System and Human Rights of the University of Barcelona on these issues, know the importance of permanent monitoring of prisons to promote a revaluation of the fundamental rights of people in custody. If the project was important in fulfilling that purpose then, the current health emergency caused by Covid-19 in prisons, turns it into a priority.

If a year ago we were already aware of the serious situation of overcrowding in prisons in Latin America, where the average ratio of prisoners to every 100,000 inhabitants was 387 while the world average was 144, a year later, we have seen some systems that have broken almost all worldwide growth records. Since 2000, while globally the inmate population has grown by 24% on average, in Latin America it has grown by 121%, 67% in Central American countries and a spectacular 175% in South America.[2]

Prison emergency

But the problem is not only quantitative, but also qualitative, where this extreme lack of space is compounded by serious deficiencies in health, food and safety, generating unsanitary environments where it is easy to spread diseases and where conflicts between prisoners themselves and between prisoners and prison staff also make prisons places where institutional violence is a normal situation. It is not surprising that we have witnessed the sad news of riots and fires in prisons resulting in the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Not surprisingly, in several countries the prison situation has been publicly declared a “prison emergency” or an “unconstitutional state of affairs”. Therefore, if the region’s prisons have become a time bomb since the beginning of the 21st century, where their collapse does not even guarantee their inhabitants the right to life or physical and mental integrity, the appearance of the coronavirus pandemic only serves to make the count down quicker.

The combination of this new health emergency with the structural existence of extremely high levels of prison overcrowding in Latin America sounds an alarm that must be addressed immediately. Numerous international pronouncements have been published in recent weeks in that direction. From the United Nations, its High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called out forcefully for a demographic reduction in prisons. The same has been said by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture. At the European level, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has drawn attention to the responsibility for ensuring the right to health in prisons. Regarding Latin America, both the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have published statements, recommendations and warnings about it. All these pronouncements (from organisations such as Amnesty International, Prison Reform International or Human Rights Watch), can be grouped into the following categories of needs:

  1. The need to promote alternative measures or those that do not involve imprisonment.
  2. The need to expand the concept of the right to communication between these people and their families.
  • The consideration that prison stays in the current circumstances and in countries with prison overcrowding may lead to prisoners being submitted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which must be combated.
  1. The need to strengthen prisoners’ right to health.

International Human Rights Law emphasises the “special position of guarantor” in which States find themselves with respect to the rights of people in prison. This means that it is their obligation to guarantee the health of prisoners, as well as to fulfil the measures required by free society, such as those of social distancing. But in overcrowded prisons, this is simply a chimera. There is no alternative: public action plans aimed at drastically reducing the imprisoned population must be implemented.

International recommendations

The Magistrate of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the prestigious criminal justice expert Raúl Zaffaroni, states emphatically that we cannot deceive ourselves: “Thousands of human lives are at stake here and no one will be able to claim ignorance of this in the future, since we are all fully aware of the illegality of those sentences in these conditions of serving time, and if we do not proceed to do the right thing, it is because the fraudulent possibility of the death of thousands of people is being accepted, more than half of whom, in our countries, are not even convicted. We are facing a catastrophe and the states that allow the death of thousands of people in their overcrowded prisons would be internationally responsible, without prejudice to the fact that their authorities were responsible for large-scale crimes involving the abandonment of people. Let us not forget that letting thousands of people die, with a clear awareness that this would inevitably be the result of their inaction, omitting the urgent measures demanded by all the responsible bodies in the world, would be a typically wilful behaviour of mass abandonment of people, clearly characterised as a crime against humanity”.[3]

Faced with such a panorama, we believe that the implementation of SIRCAIVI should include actions aimed at reducing the impact of the pandemic in prisons in Latin America. Especially insofar as it can directly influence the concept of institutional prison violence. It is in this sense that the Public Defenders of Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica (where the SIRCAIVI will be located) can see that their role of protecting the rights of people in prison will be strengthened as it takes on the tasks of registering incidents caused by the pandemic, monitoring their evolution, and offering information to these people and their families.

Specifically, compliance with international recommendations can and should be monitored. These measures are also being demanded in countries of the European Union with different degrees of acceptance; Italy, Germany and France seem to be heading in such a direction in a much deeper sense than Spain.

The pandemic is global. Avenues used to deal with pandemics must also follow a common roadmap, which is the one that emerges from the international recommendations. Fulfilling them in time, before it is too late, constitutes not only a legal duty but an ethical imperative in which, as part of contemporary civilisation, we all have a great stake.


[2] World Prison Population List. 2018 12th edition


Pais: Latin American Region
ODS: Peace, justice and strong institutions
Área de Políticas: Democratic governance policies
Tipo: Article