Inmates at the Puraquequara prison stand on a water tower as they protest against bad conditions and restrictions on family…
FILE - Inmates at the Puraquequara prison stand on a water tower as they protest against bad conditions and restrictions on family visits put in place to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, in Manaus, Brazil, May 2, 2020.

GENEVA - The U.N. Human Rights office warns overcrowding, unhygienic conditions and lack of medical care in prisons across North and South America are causing the rapid spread of COVID-19 in many facilities. 

U.N. officials gave no precise figures but they say thousands of prisoners throughout the region have been infected with the coronavirus.  They say fear of contagion among prison populations and lack of adequate healthcare for those who have fallen ill has triggered deadly riots in some detention facilities.

In the latest such incident on May 1st, reports say 47 inmates lost their lives during a violent revolt in Los Llanos penitentiary in Venezuela.  Prisoners also have been killed or injured in recent protests in Peru and Colombia. 

U.N. Human Rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, says many prisoners have tried to escape substandard conditions in detention facilities in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, Mexico and the United States.

“The scale and gravity of the incidents mentioned above seem to indicate that in some cases states have not taken appropriate measures to prevent violence in detention facilities, and also indicate that state agents may have committed use of force violations in attempts to re-gain control of these facilities,” he said. 

FILE - Inmates hold a sign that reads in Spanish "We want COVID-19 tests, we have the right to live"," as they gather ona roof during a prison protest at Lurigancho prison in Lima, Peru, April 28, 2020.

The U.N. agency is calling for investigations into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries during riots.  It is urging states to take appropriate measures to prevent further spread of the coronavirus by ensuring sanitary conditions, widespread testing and healthcare for inmates. 

Colville says the high number of COVID-19 infections recorded in prisons in the United States is a major concern given the huge number of people incarcerated, some 2.3 million.  He says another big concern is the large numbers of people held in immigration detention centers. 

“We are concerned that maybe there is not enough testing being going on in those immigration and customs enforcement center.  That said, a lot of people have been released. I do not have precise figures, but it looks like it is in the tens of thousands of people have been released across the country," he add.

Colville says conditions in detention centers and prisons should be regularly monitored by independent bodies.  He adds prisoners who become infected with COVID-19 should be put in non-punitive isolation or quarantined in facilities where they can receive appropriate medical care. 

Special Section