SANTIAGO – Special precautions are being taken to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus and to protect inmates. One of these measures is a proposed pardon of nonviolent felons. Some politicians argue that those imprisoned for crimes committed during the dictatorships be pardoned as well.
The Ministry of Justice presented a bill to the Senate that would grant house arrest to over 1,000 inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons. This bill was created in response to requests by the National Human Rights Institute (INDH). The inmates who would qualify are those convicted of nonviolent crimes and who are at higher risk of death or complications from the coronavirus: senior citizens, pregnant women, and inmates with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.
These inmates will be selected by the Gendarmería of Chile, the institution in charge of overseeing the Chilean prison system, along with the INDH, and public defenders.
The inmates of Punta Peuco (where those convicted of crimes against humanity are kept) are excluded from the house arrest option.
Senator Tomás Hirsch, of the Humanist Party, said, “this bill will exclude all those who have committed crimes against minors, domestic abusers, homicide, and those convicted of crimes against humanity.” The senator also added that all those who were imprisoned due to their role in the Oct. 18 protests should be released from custody and await their trial in house arrest.
When asked about the bill, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights Hernán Larraín said, “Many prisons are overcrowded, and they interact with frequency amongst themselves, therefore the possibility of spreading the virus is very high.”
President Sebastián Piñera has said that he will veto the bill as currently drafted, citing a lack of punishment for those who don’t respect house arrest. He has indicated that he will revise the bill and send it back to Congress.
Situations in the Jails
Poor sanitary conditions in many prisons in Chile means that the virus can easily spread to every inmate in the complex. In a recent interview, the Latin American director of the Human Rights Watch said “We are playing with fire,” in relation to the overcrowding and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has already happened in a prison in Puente Alto. On Mar. 19, an inmate of the prison reported symptoms similar to those of the coronavirus disease and asked to be sent to a medical facility. After being checked by the medical staff in prison, the possibility of him having COVID-19 was discarded. Seven days later, he was taken to the hospital suffering from a high fever. He was accompanied by two other inmates who presented similar symptoms.
It was then confirmed that he had COVID-19, which led to a complete decontamination of the prison and riots by the prisoners. The latter resulted in 26 injured inmates and one injured guard. In the meantime, a fourth infected inmate was confirmed. He and 20 others were then put in isolation to protect the other inmates.
Controversial Punta Peuco
The most controversial aspect of the proposed house arrest bill is that Punta Peuco prison inmates are specifically excluded from this measure. Family members of the inmates questioned the decision and requested that they be included because of their advanced age.
Punta Peuco prisoners are those convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. The majority are serving consecutive life sentences.
Some right wing politicians petitioned for their release as well, and presented a complaint to the Constitutional Tribunal saying that this bill is unconstitutional for not respecting the principle of equality under the law.
Larraín responded that he was surprised and defended the bill by stating that those who will benefit from the bill are nonviolent offenders and that they are not discriminating from a political standpoint. He added, “with this complaint, they would not only benefit human rights abusers, but also, rapists, sexual predators, and murderers.” He said he hoped they would withdraw the complaint. He also said that he would declare the bill urgent so that Congress can push it forward more quickly, so they can protect the inmates from COVD-19.