SANTIAGO – Chile’s Supreme Court issued a report that Punta Peuco Prison has enough space to properly isolate those with Covid-19. The report follows the Constitutional Tribunal’s rejection of the Chile Vamos coalition’s complaint. In its complaint, Chile Vamos had argued that those imprisoned for war crimes should be included in a recent bill that lets certain prisoners opt for house arrest.
Lya Cabello, judicial prosecutor of the Supreme Court, presented a report on prison overpopulation and the dangers it presents during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report notes that the only prison that actually meets the necessary health requirements is Punta Peuco, where those convicted of human rights abuses during the Pinochet dictatorship are held.
The report was presented after the Constitutional Tribunal (TC) rejected a complaint by the Chile Vamos coalition that a recent bill to allow house arrest for prisoners vulnerable to Covid-19 was unconstitutional because the bill excluded those convicted of human rights abuse.
The complaint was struck down by a vote of seven to three. Minister of Justice Hernán Larráin, who had criticized his coalition’s complaint, celebrated the TC’s decision: “This will help us, because hundreds of people who are currently deprived of liberty and have risk factors, will be in house arrest.”
A Ticking Time Bomb.
The issue began when Larráin presented a bill to the Senate to reduce the Chilean prison population because of Covid-19 concerns. The situation at the prisons has been called a “ticking time bomb” for infections, and it’s one that has already “exploded” at Puente Alto prison.
The original bill was focused on protecting inmates who were considered to be vulnerable to Covid-19: seniors, pregnant women, and those with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases. The bill was later modified and approved in the Senate, specifying that those responsible for human rights abuses during the Pinochet dictatorship—i.e., those serving time at Punta Pueco—would not be eligible for house arrest.
In response, right-wing senators from the Chile Vamos coalition presented a formal complaint to the TC to declare the bill unconstitutional, but the TC rejected the complaint.
Although President Sebastián Piñera had previously said that he would veto the bill and revise it to include Punta Pueco prisoners who otherwise qualified, he ended up signing the modified bill into a law with the changes that exclude them.
Thereafter, Larráin resurfaced a humanitarian bill that previously had been presented by the administration in 2018. The purpose of the bill is to allow anyone above the age of 75 to be offered the option of house arrest. Not everyone was happy by the decision. Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, of the Chile Vamos coalition said, “Everybody knows that the humanitarian bill won’t be approved, this is just a masquerade by the administration.”
The controversial prison was build in 1995 by President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, who needed a special place to imprison those who had been convicted in relation to the murder of Orlando Letelier, a leftist politician who was killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C.
The prison has been criticized because of its ample prison cells that include kitchens, living rooms, private bathrooms, and private bedrooms. Inmates also have access to a tennis court, a library, and satellite television. The judicial branch and the National Institute of Human Rights have criticized the privileged lifestyle that Punta Peuco prisoners enjoy when compared to the general prison population in Chile.
Ironically, it is because of their ample spaces that the Supreme Court report found that these prisoners did not need house arrest. The report determined that they have plenty of space to self-isolate. It also determined that they have a well-stocked clinic and the necessary materials to disinfect common areas.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.