Coronavirus outbreak in Colombia prison sparks fear among officials, families

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (Reuters) - A coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 30% of inmates at the prison in Villavicencio, in central Colombia, has sparked fear among local officials, neighbors and prisoners’ families that the sometimes deadly virus may spread further.

The prison, in Meta province, houses 1,756 inmates, of whom 599 have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious virus. Fifty-six guards and administrative staff have also tested positive.

The prison currently has nearly double the 899 inmates it is meant to hold, creating an environment in which the virus can easily spread. Prison populations in Colombia average overcrowding of 50%, according to prison agency INPEC.

“The prison in Villavicencio worries us, it is enormously overpopulated,” Meta’s governor Juan Guillermo Zuluaga told Reuters. “Right now we don’t have anyone in hospital, everyone inside the prison is asymptomatic.”

The number of infected prisoners in Villavicencio is the highest of Colombia’s 132 prisons, topping case numbers in many of the Andean country’s medium-sized cities.

So far, Colombia has reported almost 9,000 COVID-19 cases and 397 deaths.

While infected prisoners are isolated from the rest of the population, Villavicencio mayor Juan Felipe Harman fears the outbreak could expand into the city because the prison is surrounded by neighborhoods where thousands of people live.

“It’s a fact that the prison is a public health problem,” Harman said. “We need to keep controlling that risk factor by guaranteeing isolation conditions within the prison are the same as the city.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned this week that growth of coronavirus infections in crowded and unhygienic prisons in Latin America and the United States was a source of grave concern.

Protests by prisoners fearing infection have led to riots and the deaths of dozens of inmates in Venezuela, Peru and Colombia in recent weeks.

Residents near the prison fear they could become infected.

“We are always concerned because we are stuck next to the epicenter. We are scared,” said Wilson Marulanda, 55, who lives close to the jail with his wife and two young daughters.

While Colombia said in April it would put 4,000 prisoners under house arrest to lessen the risk of infection, just 328 have benefited from the move so far. Prisoners inside the jail are living in hellish conditions, relatives say.

“My son told me it’s very bad, that the infected are stacked one on top of each other with no priorities for beds or bathrooms,” said Sandra Vargas, 38, dropping off food at the prison where her son is held.

Reporting by Cesar Hernandez; Writing by Luis Jaime Acosta and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Bill Berkrot