Prisons in El Salvador: where social distance is impossible

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Detainees watch in an overcrowded cell at the Quezaltepeque Criminal Center, El Salvador. November 9, 2018

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Tariq Zaidi

Latin America has some of the most overcrowded prisons in the world. With prisoners crammed into tiny cells by the dozen, social distance is impossible and poor medical facilities mean that any epidemic of coronavirus would spread like wildfire.

The UN has urged governments to do more to protect detainees and has suggested that the most vulnerable be temporarily released to reduce overcrowding.

Chile, Colombia and Nicaragua have announced that they will place thousands of prisoners under house arrest, with priority given to the elderly, pregnant women and those suffering from underlying diseases. Brazil has already started placing detainees over the age of 60 under house arrest, and Peru says it plans to grant an amnesty to vulnerable detainees.

But the country with the second largest prison population per capita after the United States has yet to take such measures. El Salvador has faced gang violence for decades and its prisons are packed.

Inmates sit in cell while others lie in hammocks at Chalatenango Penal Center, El Salvador November 7, 2018

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Tariq Zaidi

Photographer Tariq Zaidi spent two years documenting conditions in prisons in El Salvador before the coronavirus epidemic spread to the Central American nation. He had access to six prisons and two police detention cells for a rare look inside the penitentiaries of the Central American country.

Tattooed gang members stand in their detention cells at Bartolinas Policiales in Lourdes, Colon, San Salvador. September 28, 2019

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Tariq Zaidi

Besides one of the largest prison populations per capita, El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world.

However, this rate went from its peak of 17.6 murders per day in 2015 to 3.6 homicides per day on average in October 2019, then to 2.1 in March 2020.

President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June 2019, claims much of the credit for this drop.

Its zero tolerance policy on gang violence also extends to prisons across the country where imprisoned gang members have not authorized visitors or phones and are confined to their cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 7. If, on the other hand, the situation inside and outside the prisons is calm, normal hours and visiting rights are restored.

Inmates watch out of an overcrowded cell, while a man wears a bandana over his face due to the putrid smell. Quezaltepeque Criminal Center, El Salvador. November 9, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

Before Mr. Bukele came to power, a program called “Yo cambio” (I change) offered inmates the opportunity to learn skills to improve their employability.

Detained in the

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Tariq Zaidi

A La 18 gang member paints, center, while another inmate embroider, right, as part of the Yo Cambio program at Ilopango Women's Prison, El Salvador, November 6 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

Some have even created their own creations and presented them in prison fashion shows.

Prisoners present their fashion creations as part of the

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Tariq Zaidi

Given the serious gang problem in El Salvador and the fact that up to 80% of outside attacks have been ordered from behind bars, many fear that the release of prisoners will only aggravate gang violence.

Carlos, surname not given, (38) represents a photograph in Penal San Francisco Gótera, El Salvador. November 8, 2018. Right - Portrait of a gang member at Ilopango Women's Prison, El Salvador. November 6, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

Prison guards regularly wear hoods to protect their identity so that they and their families are not targeted.

Prison guards, wearing hoods to protect their identity, stand in front of a portrait of Nelson Mandela at the Penal Center in Quezaltepeque, El Salvador. November 9, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

But prisons with their massive overcrowding could also become hot spots for coronavirus infections.

Respiratory diseases are already having a higher incidence in prisons across the country. According to the Pan American Journal of Public Health Study, the rate of tuberculosis infection in prisons in El Salvador has been more than 50 times that of the general population.

With coronavirus and TB spreading similarly, authorities are struggling to prepare for what infectious scientist Jorge Panameño has called a “time bomb” waiting to explode.

Detainees play cards while others watch at the Chalatenango Penal Center in El Salvador. November 7, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

President Bukele made some changes to the Salvadoran prison system. On December 26 – before the spread of the coronavirus in El Salvador – he announced that the Chalatenango prison (photo above) would be turned into a university. Six hundred detainees were transferred and the president said on Twitter – without providing further details – that the remaining 730 would be transferred in the following days.

But while President Bukele was quick to order a nationwide lockdown and curfew to curb the spread of the virus, no official prisoner release policy was announced.

El Salvador’s prisons have a capacity of 18,051, but the system currently has over 38,000 inmates.

The extreme heat, unsanitary conditions and tuberculosis claimed the lives of many detainees even before the coronavirus.

Detainees watch in an overcrowded cell at the Quezaltepeque Criminal Center, El Salvador. November 9, 2018

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Tariq Zaidi

The coronavirus pandemic therefore poses a major problem for President Bukele.

To prepare for a possible coronavirus in prison, the president has already had to lift some of the emergency measures he has imposed to better control detainees.

An inmate looks out of her cell at the Ilopango women's prison in El Salvador. November 6, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

In addition, judges in El Salvador argued that people over the age of 60 who have a terminal illness should be released temporarily – but gang members would not be included in this decision.

An inmate and former member of the La 18 gang plays guitar at Penal San Francisco Gótera, El Salvador. November 8, 2018.

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Tariq Zaidi

The dilemma he faces is serious: releasing prisoners and risking an increase in gang violence, he has struggled hard to bring them down or keep them behind bars and face a potential coronavirus explosion.

All photos are the property of Tariq Zaidi. You can follow more of Tariq’s work on Instagram, Facebook and his website.

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