Fears of the coronavirus spreading within Argentina’s prisons has ignited inmate protests and led officials to release prisoners to house arrest, a move that has generated controversy and widespread debate over prison conditions in the country.
One of the largest protests took place on April 23 at the federal prison in Villa Devoto, the most populated in Buenos Aires, demanding authorities take measures to protect them from the spread of COVID-19. Two inmates later tested positive for the virus, La Nación reported.
“We refuse to die in prison,” read a banner hanging from a prison window
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The prisoners scaled the prison walls to demand improved sanitary conditions after an inmate had a confirmed coronavirus infection. Videos show rubber bullets being shot at prisoners, while inmates hurl rocks. The incidents left 40 prisoners and 15 guards injured, Clarín reported.
Two prison guards have been arrested and several others are under investigation into the shooting death of the inmate, Federico Rey, according to La Nación.
Authorities say they are taking measures to protect inmates from coronavirus infections, testing those with symptoms and providing sanitary items such as cleaning products. In the province of Santa Fe, authorities recruited extra medical personnel to work in the prisons.
Officials have also released prisoners on house arrest to reduce overcrowding. At least 800 inmates in Buenos Aires from groups at particular risk from the virus have already benefited from the move, according to official data published by La Nación. Many who have been released are serving time on nonviolent offenses.
Some 63,000 people are held in federal prisons across Argentina and in jails in the province of Buenos Aires, according to a study by the Universidad Nacional Tres de Febrero. Nearly 20 percent of all prisoners are held on drug-related charges.
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The coronavirus pandemic has not only exposed poor prison conditions in Argentina but also put its judges in a bind when it comes to weighing prisoners’ and victims’ rights.
After the first cases of coronavirus were recorded in Argentina in early March, and with a mandatory quarantine effectively banning prison visits, inmates across the country launched a series of protests in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Corrientes, Santa Fe and Mendoza.
More than 6,000 inmates have reportedly gone on hunger strike at prisons in Santa Fe to demand that the courts allow for more of them to serve their sentences at home, according to La Nación.
In response to the inmates’ demands and concerns that prison outbreaks could lead to mass casualties, the country’s Federal Appeals Court recommended that house arrest be granted to nonviolent inmates who are at higher risk of health complications, such as the elderly, the immunocompromised, and pregnant women.
While authorities rightly claim they have a responsibility to protect the lives of inmates, and sending them home is seen a the most efficient option in the short term, many including some judges and crime victims complained prisoners are being released without effective control mechanisms to ensure they actually stay at home.
The judiciary seems to be divided over house arrest, with some judges claiming prisoners should not be sent home because of the potential risks for their victims. Advocates for crime victims have appealed the federal court’s recommendation.
Women who have survived abuse and relatives of femicide victims have said they are concerned for their safety. In some cases, this has led to judges reversing their decisions to send prisoners home if they could not guarantee the security of the victims.
A judge who spoke to Clarín suggested a better alternative to house arrest would be to create more room for inmates in existing prisons or to build new detention centers in buildings that are not currently being used, such as schools, to ensure that social distancing measures can be enforced.