Hundreds of inmates successfully escaped from four low-security prisoners across the state of São Paulo on Monday after the government canceled Easter prison holidays and tightened visitor restrictions as part of efforts to contain the Chinese coronavirus.
State prison authorities said they could not confirm how many inmates had escaped and that they were “still tallying the exact number of fugitives.” The human rights news monitor Ponte estimated that the number could be as high as 1,500 across four jails, Mongaguá, Tremembé, Porto Feliz and Mirandópolis, hours before the planned lockdown.
Videos posted across social media showed scores of prisoners running through streets, beaches, and even a soccer pitch as they made their dramatic escape.
BREAKING: More than 1,350 inmates escape from prisons in São Paulo after tensions over coronavirus restrictions; several guards being held hostage – EFE pic.twitter.com/cbibJzaXjk
— BNO News (@BNONews) March 17, 2020
Prison authorities claimed that”acts of insubordination” had taken place at the jails ahead of the planned suspension as inmates expressed their fury at the conditions being imposed upon them.
“These prisoners were unhappy about the decision that suspended the Easter leave,” Lincoln Gakiya, a prosecutor in São Paulo state and specialist in drug gangs, told The Guardian. “The prisoners were told and in some units, rebelled.”
The São Paolo state prison authority defended the leave suspension on grounds of public health and said it would stick with a 15-day suspension on both visitation and right of prisoners to leave the facility.
“The measure was necessary because the benefit would include more than 34,000 convicts of the semi-open regime who, returning to prison, would have high potential to install and propagate coronavirus,” the authority said in a statement.
O Globo reported that, by Tuesday afternoon, military police had recaptured 517 inmates, meaning hundreds of criminals still remain at large. According to the Secretariat of Penitentiary Administration (SAP), the situation is now under control in Mongaguá, Tremembé, and Porto Feliz, in addition to the semi-open wing of the prison in Mirandópolis.
“All units only house semi-open prisoners, who are the prisoner who has the possibility to go out to work or study during the day and return, and who by law is entitled to five temporary exits per year,” the Secretariat said in a statement.
Similar unrest has occurred in Italy’s prison system as a result of the Chinese coronavirus, which was recently declared a global pandemic. Last week, at least ten people died during riots in the country’s overcrowded prisons after inmates rebelled in response to similar restrictions on family visits.
The aforementioned prisons are low-security, semi-open facilities, where inmates are allowed to go to work or see their families during the day before returning in the evening. However, conditions in Brazil’s penal system are notoriously harsh and prone to brutal outbreaks of violence. Last May, 57 people were killed during a series of riots in the state of Pará, at least 16 of whom were decapitated.
The jailbreak may serve as another embarrassment to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018 on a platform of restoring law and order in a country continually plagued by violence. He has said he intends to fulfill his pledge through the construction of more jails while empowering prison authorities to tighten control of the facilities.