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Coronavirus Outbreaks, Overcrowding Leads to Rise in Prisoner Unrest

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Prisons in the United States and throughout the Americas face unprecedented challenges. The coronavirus pandemic and limited resources continue to plague prison authorities and are responsible for the inmate turmoil that has occurred this year.

[Podcast: How Belize Central Prison has Mitigated the Spread of COVID-19]

In the United States, 200 inmates rioted in a Washington state prison in April. And earlier this summer, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons implemented full lockdowns at prisons due to unrest.

This year has been especially challenging for prisons in Central and South America. In March, a prison riot over coronavirus concerns at the Modelo Prison in Bogota, Colombia, left 23 prisoners dead, 83 inmates injured, and seven prison officers in critical condition. In Paraguay, 75 inmates escaped from prison. Also, in a prison riot in Venezuela 40 inmates were killed and another 50, including the warden, were injured.

There was also wide-spread rioting at 13 other prisons across Colombia.

Overcrowding Continues in Prisons in the Americas

Overcrowding in the era of the coronavirus pandemic is a continuing challenge. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), three of the five countries with the highest rates of prison overcrowding in the world are in the Americas.

For example, the prison occupancy level in Haiti is around 450% above capacity, followed by Guatemala and Bolivia, where the occupancy level is around 360%. Overcrowding presents major health concerns.

[Related: Staff Shortages Cited as Key Factor Leading to Prison Riots]

HRW says “A major factor contributing to overcrowding is the large percentage of pretrial detainees in many countries. In Paraguay, for instance, more than 77 percent of all people incarcerated are awaiting trial, official data collected by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research shows. In Haiti, it is 75 percent; in Bolivia, 70 percent; and in Venezuela, 63 percent.”

Cramped prison conditions are also exacerbating other diseases associated with overcrowding. In Brazil, around 1,400 cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 inmates have been reported.

Escapes and the Effects of the Coronavirus in Prison Continue

According to Equal Times, since the pandemic began at the start of the year, 1,375 inmates have escaped from prisons in Brazil, five inmates died in riots in Argentina, and 47 inmates died in one day at the Los Llanos prison in Venezuela.

The coronavirus pandemic has been responsible for prison uprisings around the world. Cases are on the rise in the prison population. In the United States as of October 15, at least 147,051 people in prison had tested positive for the coronavirus. That was a 3% increase from the week before. And there have been at least 1,211 deaths within the prison population.

[Podcast: Prison Responses to COVID-19]

The first known coronavirus-related fatality in a U.S. prison occurred on March 26, when Anthony Cheek, a 49-year-old inmate at Lee State Prison in Georgia, died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. By May, Mexico already had 93 confirmed cases in its prisons. The coronavirus is such a challenge because it induces fear in inmates, which can lead to disturbances and escapes.

What is needed is a continuing focus on prison reform, an important pillar of criminal justice. Budget limitations are restricting prison improvements in the Americas. However, in light of the coronavirus, now is a very important time to more fully fund prisons so they can afford adequate staffing and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and inmates alike.

About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States and Central America on the topic of human trafficking. Most recently, he presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference in September of 2020 and became a podcaster. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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