By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
Prisons and jails are continuing to face unprecedented challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States as of January 26, there were 366,121 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Marshall Project.
In terms of deaths, the Marshall Project has reported at least 2,313 prison inmates have died from the coronavirus. During the week of January 26, the number of deaths increased 4 percent, the Marshall Project added. Conditions associated with the coronavirus pandemic have been blamed for unrest and escapes throughout the Americas.
Prison Rioting and Escapes During the Pandemic
For example, a prison riot at La Modelo Prison in Bogota, Colombia, in March 2020, was coordinated with 13 other prisons around Colombia. According to CNN, 23 inmates died and 83 others were injured. Coronavirus concerns were cited as the reason for the riot.
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In response to the riot, Justice Minister Margarita Cabello told CNN that “as of the date of the riot, there had not been any inmates or prison personnel who tested positive for the coronavirus.”
The coronavirus has caused unrest in other prisons as well. As of May 2020, over 1,000 inmates escaped from prisons in Brazil; five inmates have died in riots in Argentina, and 47 inmates died in one day at Los Llanos prison in Venezuela.
In October 2020, a violent riot at the Belize Central Prison included a hostage-taking situation and the escape of 28 inmates, according to the Belize newspaper Amandala. One of the inmates alleged in court, according to Channel 5 in Belize, that he escaped out of fear of the coronavirus.
I spoke with the prison CEO following the incident. It is important to note that the escapee was part of the violent rioting within the prison. The rioting involved stealing an assault rifle from a guard, overtaking other guards and holding them hostage, physically abusing guards, and ultimately led to a loss of life. “During the uproar, 26-year-old Stephen Jenkins was fatally wounded and died while undergoing treatment at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital,” Amandala reported.
I have worked closely with officials at the Belize Central Prison over the past couple of years, including during the pandemic. I would argue that the Belize Central Prison has set exemplary management practices with limited resources to combat the coronavirus. In September 2020, seven months into the pandemic, the Belize Central Prison had not experienced any cases of the coronavirus.
The health practices at the Belize Central Prison were effective until the rioting in October, which was quickly addressed by prison management instituting a 21-day lockdown. This prompt approach to limit the spread of the coronavirus resulted in cases within the prison dropping from 100 cases to only six.
Escapees Alleging Coronavirus Fears as Reason for Escape
Escapees frequently allege fears of the coronavirus as a cause of their escape. For example, a convicted drug trafficker at Butner Federal Correctional complex in North Carolina said he escaped because he feared he would catch the coronavirus in prison.
According to U.S. News, Robert Higdon, the U.S. Attorney handling the case, said in a statement: “Let me be clear, Mr. [Richard R.] Cephas is a convicted drug trafficker who was sentenced to federal prison for his role in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy … Mr. Cephas’ decision to escape federal custody is nothing more than an opportunistic move to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cut his prison term short.”
Prisons everywhere face enormous challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Alleging fears of the coronavirus as an excuse for a prison escape is a growing trend, but it is completely unfounded.