Prisoners take guards hostage in Brazil's coronavirus-hit Manaus

Inmates are angry about dire conditions amid reports that hundreds are already infected with the virus

Inmates are seen on the top of a tower of the Puraquequara prison during a rebellion to demand better conditions inside the prison during which seven prison guards were taken hostage, in Manaus, Amazona State, Brazil, on May 2, 2020, during  the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Inmates are demanding better conditions inside the prison, which have deteriorated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local media. / AFP / MICHAEL DANTAS
Powered by automated translation

Seven guards at a Brazilian prison were briefly taken hostage on Saturday during an inmate uprising stoked by fears of a coronavirus outbreak.

Authorities at Puraquequara prison in Manaus, a state capital deep in the Amazon rainforest where public services have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, said 10 guards and five inmates were injured in the incident, which officials said was a distraction from a foiled escape attempt.

There were no reports of any fatalities.

Relatives of inmates said the incident was a response to poor conditions in the prison, including a lack of food, power and medical attention. Some said the spread of the virus in Manaus made the concerns of prisoners more urgent.

Officials did not respond to questions about fears of an outbreak in the prison. Two other prisons in the state of Amazonas confirmed cases of the virus, according to local prison authorities.

Inmates in various Latin American nations have risen up during the pandemic due to fears the virus would rip through the region's underfunded and overcrowded jails.

Late last month, inmates in Buenos Aires climbed to the roof of a jail and set fire to mattresses, saying they refused to die while locked up.

Nine inmates died in a prison riot in Peru last week.

Last Friday in Venezuela, at least 46 people died and 60 were injured in a riot at a prison in Portuguesa state, according to a rights group and an opposition lawmaker.

El Salvador prisons amid coronavirus 

The violence at Puraquequara prison came as the virus outbreak overwhelms public services in Manaus, where patients who succumb to Covid-19 are buried mass graves and there are warnings of an imminent shortage of coffins.

Brazilian TV network GloboNews reported the country's national prison chaplaincy sent a formal complaint to the public defender's office in Manaus alleging that up to 300 inmates at the prison were sick, some with symptoms compatible with coronavirus cases.

According to the report, authorities denied there were cases of the virus inside the prison.

The chaplaincy, which is tied to the Catholic Church in Brazil, and state prison officials did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters on Saturday.

The public defender's office said it visited the prison in late March and the chaplaincy's complaint regarding an outbreak "was not confirmed".

However, the office said the possibility of the virus spreading among inmates was a concern and it was working to move vulnerable prisoners to house arrest where possible.

Violence is rife in Brazil's prisons, which are often controlled by people involved in organised crime.

Human rights groups call conditions medieval, with food scarce and cells so packed prisoners sometimes have no space to lie down.

In January 2017, almost 150 prisoners were killed as rival gangs battled each other in several prisons in northern and north-eastern Brazil.

In one particularly violent incident in Manaus in July last year, 57 inmates were killed, some of whom were decapitated and thrown over prison walls.

Last year, more than 50 inmates were strangled or stabbed to death as rival gangs battled each other in four Manaus jails.