Translated by David Milan. Spanish original here.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, two prisoner organizations in Chiapas announced the start of a hunger strike to denounce the lack of medical attention in State Convict Reintegration Center No. 5 (CERSS), located in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Faced with the vulnerable conditions and deteriorating health of the incarcerated population on top of the inaction of state officials, members of La Voz de Indígenas en Resistencia (The Voice of Indigenous People in Resistance) and La Voz Verdadera del Amate (The True Voice of El Amate) announced that they would go on hunger strike from May 21 until June 5.
Alarm Bells From Weeks Ago
At the beginning of May, the organized prisoners shared their situation through several letters distributed by civil organizations. There have been no advances in case revision or their demand for freedom due to the irregularities and procedural violations in the trials that have kept them locked up.
Already poor conditions have also worsened due to the state’s suspension of visits, to limit contagion. This action has negatively impacted the inmates, as visits from family and comrades were how they received food, medication, and hygiene products, or money to buy their basic necessities inside the prison.
“We can’t fulfill our basic needs because visitors don’t have access, and this penitentiary doesn’t give us soap, toothpaste, or toilet paper,” asserted Chiapas’ organized prisoners, facing a situation that’s not limited to this southern Mexican state. According to the 2016 National Survey of the Population Deprived of Freedom, almost 60% of people incarcerated in Mexican penitentiaries have to get hygiene articles by their own means, because the jails don’t provide them.
Despite the restriction on visits, in a communiqué published on May 10, the prisoners emphasized the high risk of contagion due to the guards’ lack of protocols. Guards are relieved every two days and do not have access to sanitary equipment or methods when they interact with the incarcerated population.
“The center lacks medications we need for any kind of emergency. The only thing they give out here is Tylenol,” stated the prisoners. May 14 marked the one-year anniversary of the protest camp they have maintained to demand their freedom. “The government of Chiapas has ignored our demands because we’re victims of torture committed by the Chiapan state prosecution. The government wants to see us die here. Our place is deplorable, but we will continue until we get our freedom, no matter the cost,” they emphasized in their communique.
Actions in Response to the Pandemic
The prisoners justified their hunger strike by the lack of attention given to the health of inmates who show Covid-19 related symptoms, “not even providing medication for the symptoms.”
They also shared their worry over prison officials’ denial of possible infections among their staff, and even of the unconfirmed death of one officer.
Since May 4, the prisoners have been drawing attention to the fact that a diabetic inmate showed symptoms related to Covid-19, and after interacting with other prisoners, was isolated without receiving medical attention.
According to prisoners, this case demonstrates the need to grant house arrest to infected people to avoid risking the health of the entire incarcerated population. As their denunciation states, “The population inside is suffering from fevers, muscle pains, and diarrhea. What we don’t know is if this is the Covid-19 virus or normal fevers. There’s no way to get a Covid-19 test and there are medications for the inmates.” The two organizations emphasized the grave health risks they face, because they have members with hypertension, diabetes, various infections, and other ailments that can increase the mortality rate of the coronavirus.
There are more than 200,000 imprisoned people in Mexico, and according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 46% of those incarcerated share a cell with more than five people.
Since March 15, 2019, the organized prisoners have demanded their unconditional freedom due to multiple irregularities in the arrest and trial process. They held a 135 day hunger strike, during which they consumed only water and honey, which has undermined their health and puts them at even higher risk if they get infected with Covid-19.
By May 18, the National Human Rights Commission had registered 120 positive Covid-19 cases in penitentiaries, in addition to 74 suspected cases, 28 recoveries, and 21 deaths.