Shocking images taken at an El Salvador prison show inmates forced together in a jailhouse lockdown as authorities ignored social distancing rules.

The Izalco prison inmates - who were wore masks during roll call - were crammed next to each other after President Nayib Bukele ordered a 24-hour lockdown of prisons containing gang members.

Bukele said their leaders would be sent into solitary confinement after a sudden spike of 22 homicides on Friday.

Inmates at Izalco prison in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo / AP
Inmates at Izalco prison in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo / AP

The El Salvador president wrote on Twitter: "No contact with the outside world. Shops will remain closed and all activities are suspended until further notice.

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"Gang leaders will go into solitary confinement."

Bukele said the "maximum emergency" lockdown would be enforced while police investigated the 22 murders reported on Friday.

That number was the highest total in a single day since Bukele took office last June, a police spokesman said.

Police guard inmates, wearing masks, during a security operation. Photo / AP
Police guard inmates, wearing masks, during a security operation. Photo / AP

Only a few years ago, El Salvador, which has long been plagued by powerful street gangs known as maras, had the highest homicide rate in the Americas.

However, murders have fallen significantly under Bukele and the Central American country has in recent months registered several days without any homicides.

El Salvador began a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on March 22, and has made breaking lockdown laws punishable with imprisonment.

Inmates are marshalled by police. Photo / AP
Inmates are marshalled by police. Photo / AP

Human rights organisations in the country have campaigned against the stringent measures and have contested some of the detentions that have not allowed people to be seen in front of a court before being jailed.

Inmates at Izalco prison in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo / AP
Inmates at Izalco prison in San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo / AP

The country's constitutional court has ruled to release some people detained illegally. But Bukele has continued to defend the police's authority to detain people and send them to quarantine.

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"The government is insisting on using confinement as a punishment to whoever violates executive orders, which are unsustainable," Celia Medrano, chief programme officer of San Salvador-based human rights organisation Cristosal, told Al Jazeera.

"They have to consider that there is a situation of informal employment for subsistence for many people who are not in conditions to maintain quarantine in their own home."

The country of 6.4million people has only seen 298 confirmed infections of coronavirus with eight people dying since the start of the pandemic, according to John Hopkins University.