Amidst the imminent spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the precarious prison infrastructure in El Salvador, La Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, La Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local , the Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR), Women’s Equality Center (WEC) and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) call on the State of El Salvador to take urgent measures to reduce overcrowding in detention centers and, in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination, to release women wrongly imprisoned for having suffered obstetric emergencies.
The COVID-19 health crisis has further revealed the seriousness of the structural problems affecting El Salvador, including the severe deficiencies in its penitentiary system. International human rights organizations have already warned that prisons can be a focus of transmission of the virus and that, as such, it is necessary that States, as El Salvador, take the necessary steps to reduce prison overcrowding by releasing people in vulnerable conditions. It is widely known that Salvador’s detention centers do not have adequate sanitary conditions to prevent contagion: there is no access to safe drinking water; facilities do not allow for the implementation of social distancing measures among inmates; there is no access to timely health services; and, as has been known publicly, the treatment of prisoners amounts to cruel and inhumane.
In the context of the pandemic, El Salvador has already received several calls to respect the rights of inmates. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked El Salvador to respect the Principles and Good Practices of the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas. Specifically, IACHR has asked States to grant early release for people considered to be in risk groups, such as the elderly, pregnant women or women with children in their care. This human rights body has also highlighted that measures aimed at reducing overcrowding in prisons should be applied transparently and without discrimination.
During this health crisis, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also called for an investigation into all alleged human rights violations in the context of the implementation of the COVID-19 response measures. The High Commissioner was emphatic that States have an obligation to respect the prison population by taking steps to prevent foreseeable threats to public health, and that, in order to do so, States need to adopt measures to reduce overcrowding by releasing, among others, prisoners who are detained with insufficient legal basis.
This is the case for women who are arbitrarily detained in El Salvador. As established by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention last March, in this country, women who have suffered obstetric emergencies are arbitrarily detained. The Working Group found that these women are victims of the current Salvadoran normative framework which is discriminatory because it restricts the human rights and dignity of women by criminalizing the exercise of their reproductive rights and the conducts that are a direct result of the lack of access to health services. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation of these women is worsened because they are arbitrarily detained and are exposed, as an additional risk, to the spread of the virus.
Globally, many countries have applied the UN’s recommendations of reducing the prison population to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. In Latin America, several States have aligned themselves in the same regard and have granted freedom or early release to populations in vulnerable contexts with a view of containing COVID-19 transmissions. We highlight the following examples:
- In Chile, women who have served a third of their sentence; women who have 36 months -or less- left on their sentence; and pregnant women and / or mothers with a child under 2 years of age residing in the penitentiary institution, have been released from prison.
- In Colombia, house arrest has been granted to pregnant women or those with children under three years of age, among prison detainees, as well as to people under pre-trail detention measures for wrongful crimes.
- In Mexico, women accused of the alleged crime of abortion have been released, and, by extension, the health personnel who carried out the procedures, without violence and with the consent of that woman, have also benefitted from this measure.
- In Brazil, the review of pre-trial detentions, with a view of releasing pregnant women, infants, mothers or persons responsible for children up to 12 years of age or people with disabilities, as well as older, indigenous, disabled or persons in a vulnerable group has been recommended.
- In Nicaragua, 1700 people who had no criminal record and who were charged with crimes for which some sort of bail was accepted, were released.
It is clear that countries in the region have released a significant number of women, considering conditions, such as, their status as mothers, whether their underage children are in or out of prison; whether they are in pre-trail detention; or whether they have served a considerable portion of the sentence imposed on them. As such, it is worth saying that many of wrongfully imprisoned Salvadorian women find themselves in very similar situations: they have children under the age of 12 waiting for them at home, they are arbitrarily detained, or they have already served a third or more of the sentences they should have never served.
As a member state of the Organization of American States and the United Nations, El Salvador must not only align itself with the recommendations of international human rights organizations; but it must follow the example of other nations in the region that have taken steps to reduce the overcrowding of prisons as a measure to contain the expansion of the COVID-19 virus. It is urgent to release people who meet the above requirements, allowing them to find a place that guarantees adequate health conditions to prevent contagion.
In the midst of one of the worst health crises that humanity has ever suffered, many women in El Salvador continue to be in prison wrongfully: either because they were arbitrarily detained or because they are facing unjust sentences for a crime they did not commit. Salvadorian women wrongly imprisoned for suffering an obstetric emergency are women who long ago should have enjoyed freedom and, today, in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, they do not deserve to be exposed to greater risks.
Their freedom is necessary!