Brazilian church agency demands prisoners’ release to contain COVID-19

A police officer checks inmates in the central penitentiary in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Aug. 28, 2018. The Prison Pastoral, an organization linked to the Brazilian bishops’ conference, has demanded the release of prisoners as part of efforts to contain the expansion of COVID-19 among incarcerated Brazilians. (CNS photo/Diego Vara, Reuters)

By Lise Alves 
Catholic News Service

SAO PAULO (CNS) — The Prison Pastoral, an organization linked to the Brazilian bishops’ conference, has demanded the release of prisoners as part of efforts to contain the expansion of COVID-19 among incarcerated Brazilians.

“If the virus spreads through Brazilian prisons, the consequences will be disastrous. Eighty percent of coronavirus cases have mild symptoms, such as the flu; however, prisoners and inmates have very low immunity due to the degrading conditions in prison,” pastoral officials wrote in an open letter in mid-March.

Pastoral officials said they fear COVID-19 among prisoners would be similar to rates of tuberculosis, which, they said, is 30 times higher in prisons than in the general population.

According to the latest data from the Ministry of Justice, 62 percent of deaths of inmates in Brazilian prisons are caused by diseases such as HIV, syphilis and tuberculosis.

Brazil’s federal government, along with 10 state governments, enacted stricter measures in prisons, but according to the pastoral these are only palliative and are not likely to reduce contamination.

“The actions that have been taking place in recent days, such as suspension of visits, greater cleaning of cells, provision of cleaning products to prisoners, distribution of information booklets for prison officers and medical screening of prisoners are, in our evaluation, measures of little efficacy, taken more to respond to the social panic that the spread of the virus has caused than to ensure that prisoners are, in fact, not contaminated,” said pastoral officials.

According to them, cleaner cells will not help if they are still overcrowded and if prisoners do not have hygiene materials.

Brazil has approximately 710,000 incarcerated people, 31% of whom are still awaiting trial, according to data from the Violence Monitor, produced by the Brazilian Public Security Forum. Brazilian prisons, however, only have the capacity to house fewer than 424,000 inmates.

On March 16, after the government announced restriction on inmates’ work-leave and visits, more than 1,350 prisoners from three separate prisons in the interior of Sao Paulo state fled, many through the front door of the penitentiaries after taking guards hostage. State officials said that the restrictions would affect over 34,000 inmates currently incarcerated in Sao Paulo prisons.

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