The first cases of coronavirus on both sides of prison bars has brought the growing tension in Buenos Aires Province prisons to a higher level.
On Tuesday, convicts at Melchor Romero’s Unidad 10 jail climbed onto the roofs in a prison mutiny to press for transfers and improved hygienic conditions, with the unrest spreading elsewhere to at least two more prisons (Ituzaingó y San Martín).
Meanwhile, at Campana’s Unidad 21 – a maximum security prison containing some 1,030 convicts – it was the turn of a prison guard to test positive for coronavirus last weekend, although he recovered within three days. Another10 of his colleagues were placed in isolation.
While tension was general, Melchor Romero was one of the prisons least expected to cause problems because its 150 convicts are in the last stages of their sentences. According to reports, this factor only fuelled discontent because many of these convicts enjoyed the benefit of transitory parole, which the courts suspended with the onset of the pandemic in order to prevent Covid-19 from spreading between the prison and the outside world.
Calm returned to the prison after noon following negotiations with the provincial ombudsman, the La Plata ombudsman, the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria, top brass of the provincial penitentiary service and La Plata judge José Villafañe with the mutiny brought under control without casualties, prison spokesmen informed Perfil.
Petition for house arrest
The prisoners are preparing a petition accompanied by lawsuits with a view to obtaining house arrest and release from prison.
The prisons of Buenos Aires Province are overcrowded with most housing double their permitted capacity, as is the case with Unidad N° 42 in Florencio Varela, the venue of the first confirmed case of an infected convict.
The 12 pavilions there were designed for a capacity of 550 convicts although they currently give shelter to almost 1,000. Last Sunday when the first coronavirus test was confirmed, there was an attempted mutiny with some incidents. Prisoners lodged elsewhere in the complex heard the noise and spread videos, denouncing that several convicts had been wounded by rubber bullets.
"The situation is very complicated and the necessary measures cannot be taken because many things are missing,” a youth jailed in Greater Buenos Aires who preferred not to be identified told Perfil, pointing out that only after the first positive test for coronavirus did the guards start to use face-masks and gloves.
"This is a time-bomb. If the virus enters, it will complicate many things. We’re trying to look after each other among ourselves because not only do the authorities do nothing but they also hide information," the youth said.
In the three days following the positive coronavirus test there were 288 requests to leave the prison, officials said.
On Friday morning, a violent riot broke out at the federal jail at Villa Devoto, Buenos Aires City, with rubber bullets reportedly fired. Police surrounded the pri- son, 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. Inmates could be heard shouting demands for a judge to hear their case and for better protection against the pandemic.
At least 11 individuals were injured, officials said.
So far three positive cases of Covid-19 have been reported within prison walls: two guards and a convict.
The first guard infected, aged 46, entered Delta clinic in Campana last Saturday and was already discharged on Tuesday.
According to the penitentiary service, he only performed external guard duties (last at work on April 5 when he started to feel ill) and had no contact with the prisoners, never entering the pavilions. The guard had only been in contact with the 10 isolated colleagues (quarantined at home as a preventive measure), none of whom have developed symptoms as yet. The infected guard is assumed to be a case of local contagion in Campana.
In comments reported by local outlets, Buenos Aires Provincial Penitentiary Service chief Xavier Areses explained that “as soon as we became aware of what was happening with the non-commissioned officer, we applied the protocol without delay, reacting swiftly.”
He added: “The staff and the prisoners were correspondingly informed and the medical reports regarding the health of the infected official are favourable. I want to bring calm to those deprived of their freedom as much as our personnel.”
– TIMES/PERFIL, adapted from reporting by Leandro Nieva.