Inmates’ relatives outside the Dom Bosco Juvenile Detention Centre, where detainees rioted in April of 2020 after authorities suspended family visits to prevent the spread of coronavirus. April 18, 2020.
(Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL / AFP) (Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images)
Inmates’ relatives, pastoral workers decry insufficient information, safety measures
By Eduardo Campos Lima
— São Paulo, Brazil — The coronavirus pandemic has “exacerbated prisoners’ vulnerabilities” across Brazil’s already overstretched prison facilities, while some monitors have been unable to visit facilities in person for well over a year.
Covid-19 has been spreading throughout Brazil’s prisons at alarming rates. Relatives and pastoral workers have not been receiving enough information on prisoners in the country during the pandemic, but the Pastoral Commission of the Brazilian bishops’ conference conducted a survey that yielded that and other results that are cause for deep concern.
Most of the respondents (73.8 percent) to the survey, which was conducted in March, said that in-person visits are not allowed. They claimed that communication with prisoners “has been terrible.” Almost 30 percent of the interviewees accused the penitentiary administrators of failing to give information on the prisoners.
The bishops’ Commission released the survey results at the end of April.
The Brazilian National Penitentiary Department claims that only 176 detainees died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. With at least 759,000 prisoners, the country has detected only 52,264 cases of contagion in correctional facilities till now.
But the Prison Pastoral Commission report showed that 56.1 percent of the respondents had somehow received information on suspected cases of infection in prisons.
“The government decide to test only inmates with serious symptoms. But the disease can be asymptomatic. Even if a detainee has symptoms like cough, he or she is kept with the others,” affirmed Lucas Gonçalves, the Prison Pastoral Commission legal advisor.
The Commission has been denouncing for several years the terrible conditions of the Brazilian prisons. Previous reports issued by the organization have criticized the country’s prisons for chronic overcrowding, lack of basic hygiene items including running water, and general conditions that favor the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and scabies.
Along with other civic organizations, the Prison Pastoral Commission has alerted the Brazilian authorities of the risks of the pandemic among detainees. But no significant changes have been made.
“The prison system tried to deny that the coronavirus is spreading among detainees. But people who recently left correctional facilities told us what’s really going on,” Fr. Gianfranco Graziano, the Prison Pastoral Commission theological advisor, told the Catholic Herald.
“The information also leaked through the prisoners’ relatives and the mafias that operate inside and outside the system,” he added.
According to reports received as part of the survey, the authorities apparently mismanaged suspected cases of the disease.
“My husband caught the disease right at the beginning of the pandemic but thank God he’s fine. There have been isolation cells full of prisoners infected with the virus,” a respondent told the Commission.
Another person said to the surveyors that most agents don’t wear face masks. “One of the convicts that I represent told an attorney that there’s no coronavirus there [at the prison] anymore. She was convinced of that information, which had been transmitted to her by correctional officers.”
There have been suspected cases of the disease not only among prisoners, but also among guards. In São Paulo State, the region with the highest number of detainees in the country, at least 63 agents died from Covid-19, according to the prison workers’ union.
“Even the director of the women’s penitentiary died from Covid-19. We know that the disease is spreading inside the system the same way that it’s spreading on the outside,” Graziola added.
Brazil currently faces a harsh second wave of the pandemic, with an average number of 2,500 daily deaths. More than 414,000 people died from Covid-19 in the country since March of 2020. Vaccination has been progressing slowly, with only 33.4 million people (about 15.7 percent of the Brazilian population) immunized with at least one dose at this point.
At first, prisoners had been included in the national immunization plan, but they have been taken out of it after political pressure. Now, their vaccination depends on the initiative of the State and city authorities. There’s no reliable information on the number of detainees vaccinated.
According to the Prison Pastoral Commission’s study, 83 percent of the respondents don’t have any information on how the vaccination process is going in correctional facilities. The Commission has been struggling for the right of detainees to be included in the priority groups for vaccination, given that the confinement makes them vulnerable to infections.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the prisoners’ vulnerability in all levels,” Gonçalves declared.
Fr. Gianfranco Graziola said that the Commission fears that the prison authorities take advantage of the situation generated by the pandemic to impose more restrictions to the groups’ operations.
“In most prisons, we haven’t been allowed to enter since March of 2020,” he declared.
Lucas Gonçalves considers that the authorities have been making an effort to curtail the detainees’ right to receive visits. “They’re transforming all kind of visits in virtual conferences,” he said.
With fewer people visiting prisons, there’s an increased risk of torture and other human rights violations, Graziola said. “That’s already happening.”