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ARGENTINA | 24-04-2020 16:34

'We refuse to die in prison': Villa Devoto prison inmates riot amid pandemic

Prisoners set fire to mattresses and riot arguing for house arrest due to coronavirus. Eleven prison officials have been hospitalized for minor burns.

Dozens of prisoners at a jail in Villa Devoto rioted on Friday demanding urgent health measures after confirmation of a coronavirus case inside the facility.

Police surrounded the prison, which holds around 2,200 inmates, as explosions were heard, AFP reporters at the scene said. A group of prisoners managed to climb onto a roof, burn mattresses and throw objects at security guards trying to quell the uprising.

Authorities later confirmed that at least 11 individuals had been injured.

Inmates could be heard shouting demands for a judge to hear their case and for better protection against the pandemic, just a few days after a warden at the Villa Devoto prison was confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus.

"Covid-19 in Devoto, genocidal judges," read a banner hung from the prison roof. 

'We refuse to die in prison'

At approximately 9.20am this Friday morning, a group of about 40 prisoners took control of a sector of the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires City and began climbing to the roofs, throwing stones down at the street. Once on the roof, inmates hung a large banner with the message: “We refuse to die in prison.”

Inmates are demanding those who are at elevated risk of Covid-19 be granted house arrest. They are uploading videos to social networks showcasing their protests.

“There are confirmed cases of coronavirus, and we haven’t received any kind of protective equipment or supplies. We don’t want to die in prison,” one prisoner said. 

The riots became more severe as prisoners began burning mattresses to get their message across. Sources from the prison have confirmed that prisoners do not want to speak with the Federal Penitentiary Service (SPF), or with the executive branch, but with the officials of the National Cassation Chamber. Prisoners see this as the most effective way to get released on house arrest and avoid the risk of coronavirus.

As a result of the fires, eleven agents of the SPF who work in the Devoto prison were transferred to medical centres in Buenos Aires for minor burns. Two of the officers were transferred to the Vélez Sarsfield Hospital, while another nine were transferred to the Santa Isabel Sanatorium, all with injuries suffered in the context of the riot involving prison inmates.

Several other riots broke out in prisons last week, including in Florencio Varela in Buenos Aires province where one inmate died and 20 were injured.

Argentina has been in lockdown since March 20 and has recorded more than 3,400 coronavirus cases and 167 deaths.

House arrest

These protests come just days after Argentina’s courts began to allow small numbers of criminals to leave prisons due to fear of Coronavirus spreading through the penitentiary system. The Times reported that early last week the country’s highest criminal court recommended that the judges grant house arrest to persons detained for minor offences.

An large influx of prisoners in recent years has also led to overcrowding in prisons, leading some specialised agencies to argue that prisoners are being deprived of fundamental rights.

According to the most recent report by the Procuraduría de Violencia Institucional (Procuvin), 50 inmates died in federal prisons last year. 18 of those deaths were because of traumatic events, which is to say they were not caused by physical ailments or sickness.

The context of overcrowded prisons has also raised concerns amidst the pandemic. Raúl Zafaroni, a former member of the Supreme Court and one of the members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, warned last week that the potential for violence in the prisons is also a risk in the COVID-19 era. 

In Santa Fe Province, two riots last month resulted in the deaths of five inmates at a prison. Because of this, the National Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CNPT) has been asking judges to take measures to reduce the size of the prison population.

- NA/TIMES/AFP

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