University of São Paulo: Pandemic situation in prisons has reflected conditions in Brazilian prisons

The isolation and seclusion imposed by the cells are far from being an ally in the fight against the coronavirus in prisons. In Brazil, not only the third largest prison population in the world, but also civil servants have suffered from overcrowding, deficits in testing and an acceleration in the evolution of cases of the disease.

The most recent report that deals with the situation of the pandemic in Brazilian prisons is from the National Council of Justice, referring to the period of June 2022. It states that 109,913 individuals, both inmates and servers, have been infected since the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, and approximately 671 died from Covid-19.

The scenario reflects the situation in penitentiaries, as Sérgio Grossi, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence and the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, explains: “We know that the sanitary situation in prisons was already drastic before. In this scenario, Brazil reached a record number of people in prison, of more than 95 thousand people. This number of people arrested is one of the most evident factors affecting the number of people infected.”

Although vaccination is accelerated in the country, there are still some deficits with regard to testing. And, precisely because of this, the number may be even higher, since, without controlling the circulation of the virus in these places, it is extremely difficult to quantify the number of incarcerated carriers of the disease.

In and out of prisons
Professor Fredi Alexander Diaz Quijano, from the Department of Epidemiology at the Faculty of Public Health at USP, draws attention to external factors: “One thing we must consider is that this population deprived of liberty is not completely isolated from the rest of the community. They receive visits, are in communication and in contact with people from abroad. So, prisons end up acting as reservoirs to multiply transmission”.

He also highlights that the lack of structure and preparation to receive the incarcerated has amplified the impacts on public health within the penitentiaries. A fact that is complemented by Grossi: “In addition to the ease of proliferation of the virus due to overcrowding, prisons do not have a minimum staff for basic care”.

Water rationing, the absence of a minimum distance between detainees and hygiene materials are also potential in increasing the number of cases. These factors, added to the worsening overcrowding of prisons, result in an unprecedented impact of the coronavirus on the Brazilian prison system.

Possible alternatives
The alternatives that arise are related to the decrease in the number of prisoners, since overcrowding is directly related to the proliferation of the virus. The NEV itself says that the measures found by the public power to bar departures from the semi-open and visitations are onerous for the inmates, and suggests the “house arrest of prisoners of the open and semi-open regime”.

This was the case in Minas Gerais, where the Court of Justice even published an Ordinance regarding precautionary detentions and house arrests, for cases of open and semi-open regime, in order to reduce the flow of people in the prison system. This is a possible way out, but even so, it would be necessary to think about the conditions in which prisons are found. In the long term, it would also be interesting to think about improvements in prison conditions.

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