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Q&A: The COVID-19 Crisis in Mexico’s Prisons

A woman walking away from a prison
A woman leaves a prison in Mexico City, on May 13, 2020. © Castelan Cruz Ricardo/ZUMA/Newscom

In Mexico, the pandemic has created additional challenges for an already over-taxed prison system. The Open Society Foundations’ Soheila Comninos spoke with Ana Pecova, the executive director of Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, a Mexico-based civil society organization that works to advance women’s rights and equality, about the government’s anemic response to the crisis.

Has Mexico’s federal government released inmates in order to slow the spread of COVID-19?

No. Incredibly, the pandemic appears to have slowed down mechanisms that normally are used to release people from prison. According to a recent report [Spanish] from Animal Politico, there were fewer people released from prisons in Mexico as of July of this year than was the case during the three years prior. 

This is a part of the overall mismanagement of the crisis, and it is also indicative of a general attitude the government adopts towards people in prisons across Mexico. Neglect, and a toleration of violence against people who are incarcerated, are all too normalized within the Mexican prison system.

Has there been any attempt in Mexico to help slow the spread of the virus in prisons and provide better protection from COVID-19 for people who are behind bars?

The only hopeful thing in this period has been the approval of an amnesty law, which opens the door to release people who are being held for federal-level minor offenses.

Is the government at least locking fewer people up?

No, the number of people deprived of their liberty in Mexico has increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. The increase is linked to the increase in people in preventive detention, meaning people who have not yet been sentenced.

Month after month, both men and women in pre-trial detention have increased in the midst of the pandemic, although the increase, in proportion, has been greater for women. Currently, 4-in-10 men in prison in Mexico are in preventive detention, and 1-in-2 women in prison have yet to be sentenced.

And do you see the virus spreading in prisons, as we see in other parts of the world?

In Mexico, the death rate from COVID in prison is double that which we observe at the national level. People are dying, and yet incarceration practices do not improve.

Why are COVID-19 and incarceration such a deadly mix? 

Some of the challenges are specific to COVID-19 and the harsh realities of how the pandemic has been mismanaged in prisons. There are not, for example, enough tests in Mexican prisons to accurately track the spread of the virus and separate those who are free from COVID from those who are not.

But many of the challenges are systemic. Prisons in Mexico are high-risk places for the effects of COVID. Thirty seven percent of prisons are overcrowded. Thirty percent of people in prison do not have drinking water in their cell. 

Only 8 percent of people in prison receive hygiene items. For this reason, when the epidemic began, several organizations called for urgent measures to guarantee the rights of people deprived of liberty. 

What reforms would you like to see to these policies? 

We need to recognize that the criminal justice system in Mexico is unjust. It punishes people for larger inequities, even when holding people behind bars is often destructive. The amnesty law that has been adopted in response to COVID-19 holds some promise as a means to liberate those who should never have been held behind bars in the first place. These are often, to put it bluntly, people who are not wealthy enough to find a way out of detention. They rarely present any risk to public security. They also are, increasingly, women.

For me the focus should be more on what happens before prison: how do people get to prison? If they did commit a crime, why? At EQUIS we have documented what leads to the imprisonment of most women in Mexico. Invariably they are victims of family violence; they are excluded economically, curtailing their independence; and the state provides limited, or no, support and protection.

But the stories of these women are rarely told. And instead of finding “justice” from judicial institutions, once in the criminal justice system, these women almost universally experience further violations of their rights. Our system does not repair rights for victims, it creates more and more victims.

Does the justice system in Mexico focus too much on punishment?

Yes. In Mexico, with its high levels of violence, punitive policies are incredibly popular. The problem is that these policies reduce justice to punishment and punishment to prison.

To make real progress, we have to take a different approach. The bet has to be on education. In access to health. In developing community resilience by strengthening support systems at the local level In redistribution. The same can be said of all our problems, including that of violence. Justice has to be redistributive, or it won't work.

EQUIS: Justice for Women is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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