By Marcela Rabaza, executive secretary of Caritas Bolivia
In terms of the coronavirus, overcrowding can be a killer. In countries such as Bolivia the plight of prisoners has been a long-term concern for Caritas. This concern is becoming more urgent as the pandemic spreads across Latin America and the number of victims rise.
In recent weeks, Bolivia has faced almost uncontrolled increases in COVID-19 infections, with the virus sweeping through the most vulnerable populations such as the elderly, people with chronic diseases, pregnant women and others.
One month after the coronavirus arrived in Bolivia in March 2020, only 300 cases were registered. This changed radically after two months, when the number of infections jumped to 2,800. In the third month, 15,281 infections were registered. By 21st June that number exceeded 23,500 cases in a population of around 11.5 million people.
Overcrowding inside prison facilities has been a big push factor for the spread of the coronavirus. The lives of prisoners were already very difficult due to lack of food, poor infrastructure, healthcare and basic services.
Caritas Bolivia has been present in the country’s prisons for more than 30 years to offer support and accompaniment to prisoners. At this time, more than ever, I consider it necessary to open paths and promote messages of hope for the defence of life, human dignity and respect for the human rights of those deprived of liberty.
There are 48 prisons in Bolivia, with a total population of approximately 18,101 people, of which 16,900 are men and 1,200 are women. Among the prisoners there is a large percentage of elderly people, terminally ill, disabled people, pregnant and/or breastfeeding women and women with children under 5 years of age.
On May 16, the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz registered two deaths and 25 positive cases of COVID-19, being the first prison in Bolivia with confirmed cases of the virus. In previous days a policeman had been infected in the Puerto Suarez prison and some suspicions in the Guayaramerín and Mocovi prisons. In the last week, the San Roque prison in Sucre also registered confirmed cases of COVID_19.
From the start of the pandemic, we expressed our concern about the conditions in which those deprived of liberty are serving their sentences and we advocated to the government and sent contributions to the amnesty and pardon document that would become the presidential decree.
We have so far delivered food, hygiene items and medicines to over 6,600 prisoners across Bolivia. This includes deliveries to the prisons of Puerto Suarez, Mocovi, Guayaramerín, Cobija, Chonchocoro, Cantumarca, Camargo, Monteagudo, Padilla, Camiri, Tarija, Uncía, Uyuni, Villazón, Cochabamba, San Roque, San Pedro and La Merced in Oruro. We will go to more prisons in coming weeks.
“I would like us to pray today for the problem of overcrowding in prisons. Where there is overcrowding, there is the danger in this pandemic that it winds up being a grave tragedy. Let us pray for those responsible, and for those who need to make decisions in this area, that they might find a correct and creative way to resolve the problem.” – Pope Francis
Those in prison are grateful for any help and attention they receive. What we give is not just material help but a sign of hope and nearness in which we assure them they haven’t been forgotten.