On April 17, Brazil recorded its first COVID-19 related death in a prison. That fuels fear that the disease could devastate the country's overcrowded, unhealthy, and large prison system – the third largest in the world.
According to the Brazilian National Penitentiary Department, by April there were already 125 suspected cases of COVID-19 in Brazilian jails. On March 31, the number of suspected cases was 74. The first three confirmed cases of the disease in the prison system were recorded on April 9.
According to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, by April 20, the country registered 2,575 deaths and more than 40,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The numbers could be much higher, as the testing capacity is limited.
A study by Imperial College London and published in late March estimates that between 44,000 (if social isolation is strengthened) and 1.1 million (unrestricted) people could die from the disease in Brazil, a country with a population of 210 million.
For a long time, Brazil's prison system has faced criticism for its severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Insect pests are common, and so is the chronic shortage of hygiene and medical products. According to data provided by the Prosecutor's Office and obtained by the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, 31% of the country's prisons do not have resident doctors. Experts estimate that there is a vacancy shortage of 300,000 across the prison system.
The Pastoral Carcelaria (Pastoral Carceria), a branch of the Catholic Church that provides social, legal and health care in the prisons of Brazil, conducted a survey of pastoral workers, families of prisoners, prison workers, lawyers, judges, public defenders and members of social organizations about the new coronavirus. The conclusions were published on April 9:
377 people (31.35%) will answer that they have suspended cases of coronavirus and prisoners, while 207 (17.2%) will claim that they have not. 621 people (51.5%) did not know how to respond if they were not suspended.
In relation to confirmed cases, 245 people (20.4%) stated that they know of the existence of people with no criminal system or viruses, whereas 222 (18.5%) reported that they do not know of specific cases. Most of the time, a large number of people responded by not knowing: 736, or 61.2%.
377 people (31.35%) answered yes, there are suspected cases of coronavirus in prisons, while 207 (17.2%) say no. For their part, 621 people (51.5%) could not answer whether there were such cases or not.
Regarding confirmed cases, 245 people (20.4%) claimed to know of the existence of people in the prison system who are infected with the new coronavirus, while 222 (18.5%) claimed that they did not know of specific cases. Once again, a large number of people answered that they did not know how to answer the question: 736, or 61.2%.
On April 13, the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro, a former federal judge who became famous for leading Operation “Lava Jato”, declared that “everything is under control” in Brazil's prisons. In March, he assured the population that “there is no reason for unfounded fear in the prison system” and added that:
There is an environment of relative security for the prison system in relation to the coronavirus, the two prisoners are isolated from each other.
There is an environment of relative security in the prison system in relation to the coronavirus, due to the prisoners' own condition of being isolated.
For a long time, Brazil's prisons have been prone to epidemics. According to a report by Public Agency, a Brazilian non-profit media outlet, in 2018 there were more than 10,000 confirmed cases of tuberculosis in the country's prisons. That means that there were more than 1,400 cases of the disease for every 100,000 people inside the jails, while outside there were only 40 for every 100,000 at the time of the investigation.
Professor Carla Machado, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, interviewed in the article, mentioned that it is only a matter of time until the new coronavirus begins to spread uncontrollably in the prison system. His colleague, professor and physicist Dirceu Greco, added:
A superlotação é a condição ideal for any biological agent of air transmission. In the absence of supplies and other funds: lack of water and water for those people. And of course, we lack health care, medical attention, nurses and social assistance equipment.
Overcrowding is the ideal condition for any airborne biological agent. Lack of supplies is another factor: people do not have soap or water. And, of course, the lack of health care, medical attention, nurses and social assistance.
To avoid this Dantesque scenario, the governors of almost all 26 Brazilian states and the Federal District have guaranteed house arrest for prisoners who are under a “semi-open regime” (type of arrest in which the prisoner goes out to work, but sleeps in jail ) and those belonging to risk groups.
In addition, they suspended all visits and the delivery of food and hygiene items by family members. Initially, the measure sparked a riot among the prisoners (hundreds of jails escaped in São Paulo on April 16), as many Brazilian jails depend on supplies delivered by the prisoners' families. In a statement, the Prison Ministry reported that prisons in the northern state of Amazonas delivered rotten food to their prisoners and added:
Questiona-se: how to prevent the entry of doenças not prison, as o coronavírus, ou reduce symptoms – or allow cure – sem saudáveis food, hygiene products and cleaning products?
We ask: how do you prevent the entry of diseases into a prison, such as the coronavirus, or how do you reduce symptoms – or allow a cure – without healthy food, hygiene and cleaning products?
Brazil has long struggled to devise an alternative criminal punishment to stop prison overcrowding. With the pandemic, measures such as the reevaluation of preventive arrests (so far, 253,963 people who are incarcerated in the country have not yet gone to trial) are among the recommendations delivered by the National Council of Justice (CNJ) to prevent a disaster .
A note from the Criminal Justice Network, a group of several organizations, stresses the importance of taking preventive measures:
An alarming growth in new cases of the world-wide spread of coronavirus, exposed to intensities of social, racial and economic vulnerabilities in Brazil. Do not imprison, a situation is aggravated exponentially.
The alarming increase in new cases of coronavirus spread worldwide, exposes the intensity of social, racial and economic vulnerabilities in Brazil. In prison, the situation worsens exponentially.