By Eva Vergara & Maria Verza / Associated Press News
The spreading specter of the new coronavirus is shaking Latin America’s notoriously overcrowded, unruly prisons, threatening to turn them into infernos.
The Puente Alto prison in downtown Santiago, Chile, had the largest of Latin America’s largest prison virus outbreaks so far, with more than 300 reported cases. The prison’s 1,100 inmates are terrified. Social distancing is hard to practice in jail.
“They are all in contact with each other,” said prison nurse Ximena Graniffo.
Any efforts at reducing contact were blown away in El Salvador over the weekend when authorities crammed prisoners — albeit wearing masks — tightly together in prison yards while searching their cells. President Nayib Bukele ordered the crackdown after more than 20 people were murdered in the country Friday and intelligence suggested the orders came from imprisoned gang leaders.
Latin America’s prisons hold 1.5 million inmates, and the facilities are often quasi-ruled by prisoners themselves because of corruption, intimidation and inadequate guard staffs. Low budgets also create ideal conditions for the virus to spread: There is often little soap and water and cell blocks are crowded.