To counter the open revolution that has broken out in Chile over the past year, President Sebastián Piñera, like many other politicians in that country, has embraced a murderous political program of attacking protestors.

By International Workers’ Movement (MIT) Chile

If our comrades remain imprisoned and eventually succumb to COVID, it will be a great triumph for the counterrevolutionary forces and a harsh blow for our revolution, which the ruling class would be happy to see come to an end. Prior to October 18th, political prisoners numbered around 45 (including Mapuche and non-Mapuche peoples. The Mapuche are a historically persecuted indigenous group inhabiting south-central Chile and present-day Patagonia). After October 18th, this number exploded to more than 2,500 workers and young people. This imprisonment is a conscious choice on the part of the government and politicians. These are political prisoners because they are jailed for their ideas and for being part of a struggle that is threatening the existence of a capitalist system built on death and starvation.

The situation of political prisoners in the middle of a pandemic is in itself a crisis. Even an official on the Supreme Court stated that jails are a ticking time bomb for an outbreak of the coronavirus. Overcrowding and insufficient access to water and soap make it impossible to guarantee the minimum health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. Detainees have published multiple videos pleading for the basic health measures to avoid illness. In response, authorities have done little or nothing, opting for a genocidal politics that condemns prisoners to get sick and die. All of this while the Piñera government frees human rights violators and avoids the situation of political prisoners.

Within this context, the Mapuche political prisoners jailed in Angol and Temuco prisons announced to the authorities they were going on an indefinite hunger strike until their conditions changed. They are demanding that imprisoned persons could complete their sentences within their own territories.

On a global scale, investigations show that prisons present a higher risk of contagion and infection for the flu, tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis B and C, among other illnesses (OMS, 2014). In South America, the rate of overcrowding in prisons registers in some cases at 700% above capacity. This results in an increased number of fights and revolts that leave many hurt or dead.

In Chile, the national prison situation is ripe for the expansion of the coronavirus. Prisons are overpopulated, like the CDP Limache that holds almost double the number of prisoners it should (189%). National prisons have deficient electrical installations, unclean bathrooms, a lack of specialized medical care, and in some cases are without a clinic at all. Only one penitentiary has a hospital (LEASUR, 2018). The Third Study of Prison Conditions in Chile by the INDH in 2019 found that 24 of 40 jails did not have 24-hour access to water and lacked sufficient permanent hygienic services.

Finally, a 2012 study on prisons in Chile found that 45% of the incarcerated population had at least one diagnosed pathology, the second most common being the respiratory illness asthma (Osses-Paredes and Riquelme-Pereira, 2013). Those with asthma are recognized as having a higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID.

For this reason, beyond the mobilizations and videos from inside prisons pleading for basic sanitary measures, an international campaign led by diverse organizations has written an open letter demanding freedom for political prisoners. Seventy human rights organizations sent a letter to President Piñera; the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Hernán Larraín; and the Minister of Health, Jaime Mañalich, among other authorities, requesting freedom for all those currently imprisoned for their participation in the protests and social uprisings. Due to the dangers presented by COVID 19, and in an account that “the majority of those imprisoned have no criminal record and they all must benefit from maintaining a principle of innocence until proven guilty,” they all must be let go.

Official proposals

President Piñera proposes a pardon to those at high risk, including the elderly and pregnant women or mothers with children under two years of age that are convicted (excluding those in remand) for non-violent crimes. This would free 1,300 people and place them under domicile arrest. Considering there are 42,000 people imprisoned in Chilean jails, this is totally insufficient.

While we are facing a crisis of political prisoners, the ruling class is pressing for the passing of the “Humanitarian” law, which would free those convicted for violating human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. They have already free 17 such people convicted of human rights violations.

Various courts have decreed a change in the imprisonment of some political prisoners, ordering instead “total house arrest,” another form of infringement of liberties. Courts of appeal in many cases revoke even these resolutions, opting instead to continue with preventative detention.

In some prisons, early detection tests are being offered and certain preventative measures are being enacted, but these are insufficient measures. Restricting visits does not help if there isn’t also control of those who work in the prisons who are also possible vectors of disease transmission.

The judicial system is not guaranteeing justice for political prisoners, the vast majority of whom have not even been proven guilty of a crime. Furthermore, there is a total dearth of basic sanitary measures provided for incarcerated populations.

And let’s not forget that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera can legally hold political prisoners in preventative detention because of former President Michelle Bachelet’s 2015 “United Nations High Commission of Human Rights,” which reformed the law to include charges for possession of Molotov cocktails and other repressive impositions against the people.

Why is this happening?

We could say that this is a unique problem for the hated president Piñera, but while the situation is severe in Chile, we see the same alarming patterns across the world, both in the persecution of those engaged in political mobilizations and with prison sanitation. According to the outlet France 24, the prison system in Brazil has a deficit of 350,000 beds, a particularly horrific case of overcrowding, and health attention is precarious according to human rights organizations. Not only in Chile are political prisoners left to die in prisons. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s government commuted the sentences of 1,700 prisoners on April 8th of this year in the Penitentiary System (Spanish: SPN). However, this did not include 70 people who have remained detained for protesting against Ortega’s government, according to the news outlet DW.

The current crisis in prisons cannot be separated from their function in maintaining the capitalist state, like the armed forces, parliament, governments, etc. The dominant class, whether they be business people or the bourgeoisie of other sectors, use this conglomerate of institutions to contain social revolt. They do so principally through coercion and repression. These institutions focus on defending the principal rights of the bourgeoisie: private property. This is not the kind of private property that we think of in the working class such as a house, television, etc. Instead, they protect the private property of industries, mines, and the like with the goal of defending the businesses of the rich. For this reason, the poor are sent to jail while the rich instead have ethics classes even though their crimes are infinitely greater in magnitude. To ensure the durability of their property, the bourgeoisie inculcates a culture that emphasizes the need for “security against crime,” even though the most egregious delinquents are the business owners with their collusion and large-scale exploitation. Small-scale neighborhood crime is a result of a putrefied capitalist society of poverty and unfulfilled basic needs. With the justification of “security”, they impose their repressive apparatus that reinforces the idea that all will be resolved with jail sentences. National and international bourgeois law states that jails should serve to rehabilitate rather than punish. In reality, jails punish and control those who are suffering the consequences of a rotten social system. There is absolutely no possibility of rehabilitation. According to a recent study, 91% of policing budgets go towards vigilance and custody, and only 9% goes towards social rehabilitation of incarcerated persons.

We do not want to avoid the debate of what to do with common crime in neighborhoods, but we have a different proposal. We believe it is necessary today for territorial and neighborhood assemblies and organizations to self-organize to defend against common and domestic crime. However, we must be clear that it is necessary to end capitalism to be able to construct the social bases of a society that guarantees the right to health, food, housing, education, and to avoid common crime. There will be crimes committed by people within our class, but what is important is that justice should come from the working class where a workers’ democracy defines how to move forward rather than the corrupt bourgeois justice we currently live under. We need to have these debates because today all of these business-friendly institutions (like the Supreme Court, lower courts, parliaments, etc.), all of whose legitimacy was being questioned in Chile after October 18th and “saved by the bell” while the pandemic continues, have thrown all of their rage at the working class. Workers, students, artists, professionals, the unemployed, and men and women are receiving the highest punishments, both through their sentences and the constant threat of getting sick in a situation that has little to no health measures in the middle of a pandemic.

Emergency measures and a general plan

Despite this extraordinary health emergency that places the lives of the masses at risk, we know that some people believe that if someone committed a crime, they deserve to die. We emphatically disagree, first because as we’ve explained many of those imprisoned are there because they committed crimes to survive in a desperate situation. For others imprisoned, this may not be the case. Regardless, if a prisoner is infected, they have the possibility of infecting someone else, whether it be another incarcerated person or someone who works in jail, which successively spreads to others outside of the prison. In this kind of crisis that affects all of humanity, individualist-thinking serves no one. For that reason, it is urgent to propose a general plan.

We demand the following emergency measures:

Immediate freedom for political prisoners. Minimum demand of a move to house arrest to avoid the risk of death.
All those accused of non-violent crimes must have their sentences revoked. Their cases can be monitored outside of the prison system.
Piñera’s pardon of 1,300 at-risk prisoners sentenced for non-violent crimes is insufficient to avoid massive illness and death. Young and healthy people alike have died due to the virus. Prisoners accused of non-violent crimes and misdemeanors should be released under provisional freedom and remain under vigilance or house arrest. The majority of them are poor, blacks, immigrants, and inhabit the periphery of society. An example of how this can be done happened in Iran where in March of last year 54,000 prisoners were freed to halt the spread of the epidemic within jails. The measure extended temporary freedom to those serving whether it be less than five years or those in high-security prisons. Even with these measures, the country saw a rapid expansion of the virus and 1,685 deaths in prisons. How many deaths will there be in Chile with little to no official action?
This excludes all of those serving sentences for violent crimes, such as muggings that ended in death, kidnappings, and assassinations. This also excludes those serving for violence against women, murderers within the military apparatus, agents of the state, torturers, and those who have committed crimes against humanity.

  • Massive testing must be done in jails, both for inmates and those working in detention centers.
  • Provision of basic services such as water to halt the spread of the virus.
  • Mandated health measures for inmates and workers, including masks and access to soap.
  • Vaccination plan for those detained, those working in jails, and their families. Any possibility of contagion should be followed by isolation without infringing upon their needs. This rule applies to those working in prisons.
  • A plan to contain the pandemic within the jail system supervised by state organizations, human rights groups, and the families of those imprisoned.

As the International Workers’ Movement (Spanish: MIT), we are making an urgent call for everyone, including social and political organizations and defendants of political prisoners, and the family members of those involved to join forces and have one voice: Because the pandemic kills, we demand immediate liberty to prisoners and health measures for jails!

We know that we must do this through a huge show of force against the authorities, be it through letters, videos, or other mobilizations like we are coordinating through LIT-CI. But we know the best way to achieve our demands is through organized mobilizations led by working-class Chileans. With this as our principal fight, to recover our imprisoned front-line comrades, we will retake the revolution.

Translated to English by Dolores Underwood. The original version of this article can be found in Spanish here