Human Rights Rapporteur: “Jails are a COVID-19 Time Bomb”

Photo: Efe / Confidencial

Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions create “breeding ground” for pandemic, says the IACHR, and urges member states to adopt safety measures. 

By Ivette Munguía (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) warns that prison overcrowding in the Americas, along with their unsanitary conditions, have facilitated the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners. The organization urged member states to be flexible with imprisonment measure for “elderly and vulnerable prisoners” in light of the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. There are currently 86 political prisoners in Nicaraguan prisons, 45 of whom have COVID-19 symptoms.

Edgar Stuardo Ralón, IACHR Rapporteur for the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty and to Prevent and Combat Torture, warns that as of June 10th, more than 60,700 prisoners in the region have been infected with the coronavirus, and at least 790 have died as a result.

Prison overcrowding “obstructs access to basic services, and lack of sanitation facilitates the spread of disease,” said Ralón. When the COVID-19 pandemic is added to existing conditions, prisons become a “time bomb”, revealing “the failure of the penitentiary system operating in our region over the last decade,” he added.

Ailing political prisoners

The concern over coronavirus contagion is greater in Nicaragua because the Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo regime minimizes the pandemic. There are 86 political prisoners suffering from “inhuman conditions” within the prison population, 45 of whom have COVID-19 symptoms according to the April Victims Association (AVA). The AVA accuses Ortega of using the pandemic to wage “biological warfare” against citizens who have protested against the regime since 2018.

A series of reports published in CONFIDENCIAL on the plight of political prisoners reveal prisoners’ concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak in the National Penitentiary System in the town of Tipitapa.

Yonarqui Martínez, defense attorney for 26 of the 86 political prisoners, says “the concern is that an innocent prisoner might die”. She goes on to say that political prisoners are vulnerable due to “large-scale unsanitary conditions” within the penitentiary system; there is overcrowding of up to 20 persons per cell, and no potable water or medicines.

Uriel Pérez, of Masaya, is one of the political prisoners who is ill, and has been a prisoner for 7 months, the last month of which was spent suffering from COVID-19 symptoms in the Alemán Nicaragüense Hospital.

On June 5th, Uriel was discharged from the hospital but the news of his recuperation was bittersweet for his family. Although his recuperation was complete, Uriel was sent to one of the cells within “Gallery 300”, or “Little Hell”, La Modelo Prison’s maximum security zone, where he will remain in isolation for the coming days. The cell measures a few square meters, with little ventilation, limited access to water and electricity, and little or no natural light.

“Immediate and effective” measures are urged

Due to the vulnerability of those deprived of liberty during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR Rapporteur saluted measures implemented by countries such as Paraguay and Peru, which have changed the prison regimen to allow house detention or conditional liberty for elderly, infirm or pregnant prisoners. 

The pandemic “requires that member states adopt immediate and effective measures to protect the life of those within their custody,” said Ralón