Brazilian authorities have officially declared the first two cases of death due to coronavirus in Brazilian prisons. It has also been announced that 93 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Compared to other countries, such as the UK and the US, it looks like a manageable or not-yet-chaotic situation. Nonetheless, the reality is actually much more frightening than it seems to be.
Dubbed ‘the World’s most powerful coronavirus denier’, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian president, continues to sabotage quarantine efforts and underestimate the seriousness of the current crisis. Besides playing down the effects of coronavirus, he has joined anti-lockdown coronavirus protests, as well as public demonstrations for the closure of Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court, which represents a serious threat to Brazilian democracy. Refusing to comment on COVID-19 death toll, he has said: I’m not a gravedigger. That is the person currently at the head of the Brazilian state.
Whilst several countries have released a considerable number of people from prisons, judges in Brazil have been denying requests for temporary and early releases, as well as for home confinement. In one recent case, to justify the denial of Habeas Corpus, a judge ironically argued that only astronauts are protected from the risk of COVID-19 contagion.
To date, the only concrete policies aimed at containing coronavirus spread in Brazilian prisons are basically the prohibition of visitors in prison facilities, the suspension of legal assistance from solicitors, and the restriction of prisoners’ removal and transfer from the prison they are in. The Ministry of Justice is planning to create new prison beds by installing adapted containers, where inmates with COVID-19 symptoms would be held.
This whole scenario makes it clear that 855,921 inmates, as well as prison staff and their families, are being exposed to high levels of risks. Rather than minimising these risks, Brazilian president’s plays, in tandem with Brazilian judges’ alienation, represent additional threats, for both those who are incarcerated and those who are not.