Mexican prisoners at serious risk for Covid-19
Photo provided by the Security Secretariat of the state of Mexico, dated April 21, 2020 (released May 14, 2020) showing inmates in a local prison. EFE-EPA/ Mexico state Security Secretariat/Editorial Use Only/No Sales
By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla
Mexico City, May 14 (efe-epa).- Mexican prisons are receiving considerable criticism during the coronavirus crisis for their overcrowded conditions and the corruption that reigns within them, with prison authorities having been unable to keep the virus from spreading within them and are actually finding that releasing inmates is the best way to protect them from becoming infected.
Lorena had been incarcerated for six years at a prison in Tijuana, where she participated in a dance group. On May 6, she was isolated there with breathing problems and subsequently died.
Prison authorities said that she did not die from Covid-19 pneumonia but her fellow inmates believe that she did, making her yet another of the 40,186 cases and 4,220 deaths so far in Mexico.
According to the latest official report by Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights, Mexican prisons have registered 100 cases of Covid-19, 79 suspected cases, nine deaths and three riots linked to the virus since the outbreak of the pandemic.
This is strange, to say the least, given that Baja California state, where Tijuana is located, has not officially reported any cases in its prisons but has reported five of the nine Covid-19 deaths in prisons around the country.
Civil organizations have questioned the official figures and believe that the pandemic's impact is much greater in the prisons, where although the country is largely quarantined, inmates who are locked away in prisons are not protected from the virus.
"The fact of being in a prison doesn't mean that they are on an island away from the world. ... It doesn't mean that the virus can't get in via prison personnel," Maissa Hubert, a member of the EQUIS Justice for Women group.
In Mexico, there are 19 high security federal prisons with about 17,000 inmates and 309 state prisons with about 176,000 inmates, according to official figures, and the country's prison population is second in Latin America only to Brazil's.
According to civil organizations, almost half the prisoners are being held pending sentencing, a situation that has saturated the facilities, with 37 percent of the country's prisons experiencing overcrowding problems.
"The government is asking for a healthy distance between people but that's impossible in a 4x4 meter (170 square foot) cell with 40 people inside," the director of the Reinserta association Saskia Niño de Rivera told EFE, adding that "the pandemic has confronted the prison system with its own corruption."
She said that the ungovernability of certain prisons, which are under the de facto control of the prisoners themselves, and the corruption among prison staffers makes it difficult to implement "health measures" against the virus.
Meanwhile, several states have prohibited the public from visiting the jails, but the great majority of the inmates depend on getting food and soap from their relatives, while prison staff augment their meager incomes with bribes they take to allow these items inside.
And there are clearly health failings within the prisons.
Maria, a close friend of Lorena at the La Mesa de Tijuana prison (names changed to protect identities) told EFE by phone that she and several other inmates are showing symptoms of the virus, but they are neither isolated nor are they being tested.
"In my cell, we've had temperatures, we've lost our ability to taste and smell, we have joint aches and headaches. Thank God we haven't gotten to the point where we can't breathe," she said.
Given the situation, both Mexico City and the surrounding state of Mexico, the two jurisdictions with the highest prison populations, have opted to release dozens of prisoners with ankle monitors so that their movements can be tracked by the authorities.
"Our main aim is to depressurize the prisons in the face of the overpopulation we have," Maribel Cervantes, the security secretary for Mexico state, told EFE, adding that the state's prisons are designed to house 13,500 inmates but currently contain 31,000 prisoners.
The Mexico state government has asked the judicial branch to release at least 380 prisoners who are serving sentences shorter than five years or who are chronically ill.
Cervantes said that judges have shown themselves to be open to preliminarily releasing inmates, given the pandemic, adding that before the health crisis Mexico state already had an "ambitious plan" to release up to 4,000 prisoners.
However, she warned that these measures won't do much if the number of people being held pending sentencing is not reduced. "It doesn't help much if the same number or more people are entering prison than are leaving," she said.
The social organizations say that Mexico needs a radical change towards a penal system that is not based on massive imprisonment.
"Mexico has created a system where justice is synonymous with revenge. Judges don't dare implement alternative measures. The number of people in prison for crimes that should not be there is crazy, Niño de Rivera said.
The Senate took a step in that direction in April by approving an amnesty law that includes the release of women imprisoned for aborting their unborn fetuses, Indians who did not have translators at their trials, people who committed non-violent robbery or theft or people who were found in possession of small quantities of drugs.
Although the scope of the law will be limited - affecting only some 4,000 inmates - since it will only be applied to federal prisons and not state facilities, EQUIS is hailing it as "a process of restoring rights and a recognition of structural injustices."
In any case, Hubert warned that "thousands of other reforms are needed to resolve the situation of justice in the country, especially regarding women, who represent 5 percent of the prison population."
"Due to their lack of resources, many women are used by the prisons to transport tiny quantities (of drugs) and end up in prison. The drug policy has to be completely reformed," she said.