BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Latin America’s prison systems have reached a breaking point.
In February, a fire killed 355 inmates at the Comayagua prison in Honduras. In May, an inmate standoff in La Planta penitentiary in Caracas, Venezuela, dragged on for 23 days, forcing the government to close the facility and transfer the inmates to other detention centers throughout the country. In 2011, 171 inmates died in Mexican prisons.
“Centers of detention have become areas that go unmonitored and unsupervised in which violence, arbitrariness and corruption have traditionally prevailed,” according to the Report on the Human Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas published by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on May 10. “This reality is the result of decades of neglect of the prison problem by the successive governments of the states in the region, and of the apathy of the societies, which traditionally prefer not to look at the prisons.”
Michael Reed Hurtado, a Colombian lawyer and founder of the NGO Corporación Punto de Vista (Viewpoint Corporation), which studies Human Rights issues, agrees with the report.
“In general, society only pays attention when there is a crisis or a massacre,” he said, adding overpopulation, substandard living conditions and the volatile mix of violent and nonviolent criminals are several of the major issues facing correctional facilities throughout Latin America. “[In Latin America’s prisons] there are murderers, drug traffickers and the leaders of criminal organizations. But there are also a lot of people in there for petty theft, living in the same environment. We have to closely examine what’s happening in prisons [in Latin America]. I would say that they cause even more damage to people.”
Countries in the region have initiated programs to improve their prison systems.
Central America: Structural needs
In Honduras, there are 11,757 inmates in the country’s 24 prisons, according to a report released by Honduras’ National Commission on Human Rights (CONADEH) on April 22. This represents a 29.5% overpopulation rate, as the Honduran penal system was constructed to house 8,280 inmates. During the past 17 months, at least 400 inmates have died in violent attacks in prison, the report states.
To tackle the chaotic situation, the Honduran Congress approved on April 10 a law creating the National Penal Institute, which will oversee and restructure the country’s penal system, improve inmate rehabilitation and train security personnel. The institute will take the reins of the country’s prisons from the National Police, which have controlled them since 1883.
“If we don’t bring order to our penitentiaries, they will generate more criminals,” said Congressional President Juan Orlando Hernández at the beginning of the approval session on April 10.
In Guatemala, the government is expected to build eight new prisons throughout the country this year, funded in part through a US$10 million donation from Taiwan. There’s room for 6,700 in Guatemala’s 22 prisons, but the overall inmate population is 13,408, said Rudy Esquivel, spokesperson for the country’s National Directorate of Prisons.
The new facilities “will have the optimal conditions to rehabilitate inmates, including classrooms and workshops,” Esquivel said. “Those who rehabilitate will be eligible to have their sentences reduced, which will also help lower the number of inmates in the system.”
In El Salvador, a country with 24,283 inmates distributed among 19 prisons that can only house 9,060, the government started in January the Penitentiary Farm program, where inmates work in the fields and continue their education.
The pilot farm, located on the outskirts of Izalco, a town in the western province of Sonsonate, houses 100 inmates from the Penitentiary Center for Women of San Salvador, who will serve the remainder of their sentences working and living on the farm.
“We expect to open two more farms, in Santa Ana and Zacatecoluca, during the year, where we want to house 9,000 men,” said Douglas Moreno, head of the General Directorate of Penitentiaries in El Salvador.
Mexico: Less mix, more room
The Mexican government is building eight federal prisons this year to collectively hold 20,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes. The correctional facilities cost $32.8 million pesos (US$2.28 million) each.
The country’s 429 prisons can house 186,000 inmates. But about 417,000 were incarcerated as of October 2011, according to the Federal Public Safety Secretariat.
“It is essential that we continue removing the most dangerous inmates, convicted at the federal level, from the various state prisons, a process that is already under way,” Mexican Interior Minister Alejandro Poiré said. The new prisons will be built in the states of Sonora, Guanajuato, Morelos, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán, Durango and Coahuila, he added.
The federal prisons will feature:
Surveillance cameras in all units;
Gates controlled with Bluetooth technology;
Personal visits replaced by videoconferences with attorneys and family members;
Blocked cellphone signals;
Sensors to detect movements and variations in the terrain and soil;
Super-maximum security units for the most dangerous inmates.
Alejandro Hope, security advisor to the NGO Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), said the new prisons should thwart the violence and crime plaguing the country’s penal system.
“Separating federal prisoners from ordinary inmates has been a high priority,” he said. “This mixture of prison populations is one of the main causes behind the lack of discipline and other problems inside these detention centers.”
Brazil: Prison system full of contrasts
Brazil’s prison population is 514,582, according to December 2011 figures from the Ministry of Justice. But the country’s 1,312 penal institutions, most of which are run at the state level, only have room for 306,497 inmates.
Capacity for an additional 200,000 inmates is needed to meet demand, even though not all of the prison population is kept 24 hours a day in correctional facilities.
The country has 71,403 inmates with temporary leave privileges, allowing them to exit during the day to work at penal colonies or companies, while 18,649 have full leave privileges, allowing them to leave daily to attend school or other authorized activities. They spend the night at halfway houses.
“Since the country has only 70 agricultural and industrial penal colonies and 65 halfway houses, thousands of inmates with these privileges just stay at home and don’t even show up at the prisons,” said César Oliveira de Barros Leal, president of the Brazilian Institute for Human Rights and member of the Board of Directors of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.
Still, overcrowding is rampant.
There are 420,592 inmates without temporary or full leave privileges, including 203,446 who’ve been convicted and are 217,146 awaiting trial.
Leal, who is the State Prosecutor in Ceará and author of several books on the prison system in Brazil and Latin America, said inmates often live in substandard conditions, are physically, psychologically and sexually abused and aren’t receiving adequate medical and legal assistance.
The Brazilian criminal justice system mandates provisional prisoners be held in special detention centers. But inmates awaiting trial are held with convicted criminals and can spend years waiting for their day in court. Provisional prisoners represent more than 40% of the prison population.
“We’ve had extreme cases of people who, when they finally went to court, were acquitted or had already spent more time in jail than their sentence would have allowed,” Leal said.
Leal, however, doesn’t believe the Brazilian prison system is broken, as the country has made significant progress in the areas of alternative sentences and use of remote electronic monitoring. The country also has built several model prisons, he added.
Among the positive examples are the Associations for the Protection and Assistance of the Convicted (APACs), NGOs that manage 32 detention centers with 2,000 inmates and also operate in 115 prisons throughout the country.
Created in the 1970s by attorney Mário Ottoboni, the APACs work with smaller groups of prisoners and focuses on rehabilitation.
“We serve convicted criminals with or without privileges and regardless of the crime they have committed,” said Raquel Cristina Rodrigues, a financial representative from the Brazilian Fraternity for Assistance to the Convicted (FBAC), which coordinates APACs. “Those who are interested in serving their sentence in an APAC facility join a waiting list and are selected by the state prosecutors.”
Venezuela: A ministry for prisons
In July 2011, the Venezuelan government established the Ministry of Popular Power for Penitentiary Services to oversee the overhaul of the country’s overcrowded and violent prison system, which had been under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior.
The overhaul includes the construction of eight new prisons throughout the country, with an investment of $14 billion bolivares (US$3.2 billion) and new social inclusion programs to rehabilitate the 43,461 inmates in the country’s 35 prisons, built to house only 16,909, according to Venezuelan prison watchdog Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons - OVP).
In 2011, 560 died and 1,457 were wounded in violent incidents inside Venezuela’s prisons, according to OVP, up from 467 deaths and 967 wounded in 2010.
The Ministry for Prisons has started programs to expedite legal proceedings for inmates awaiting trial and bring workshops on masonry and woodworking to some of the country’s prisons.
Still, riots like the one in El Rodeo prison in June of last year, where 29 died and in La Planta penitentiary last May, where 23 died, show that reform has yet to arrive in Venezuela’s penitentiaries.
“As long there are no real logistics, overcrowding and riots will continue in Venezuelan prisons,” said Jackeline de Guevara, director of Fundación para el Debido Proceso (Foundation for Due Process), a local NGO that focuses on the judiciary system.
Inmate gang leaders, known as “pranes,” control almost all aspects of life, including drug distribution, extortion and food deliveries, inside Venezuelan prisons.
“Real reform starts not by building more prisons, but by bringing authority back to those that already exist,” said María Velázquez, a Venezuelan prison analyst and former director of the country’s National School of Wardens. “The ‘pran’ phenomenon has spread to almost every Venezuelan jail.”
Prison personnel must be trained not only in security measures, but in human rights if order is to be restored, Velázquez said, adding social reintegration programs also must be improved. “We need to keep [the inmates] busy and find them jobs,” she said. “There are many infrastructure problems in this country, and inmates could help fix them when they return to society if proper social programs were in place.”
Peru: 10-step program
Peru’s National Institute of Prisons (INPE) launched in April a 10-step, nationwide program aimed at “creating prisons that aren’t overcrowded, are free of corruption, treat inmates humanely and enforce social reinsertion measures,” said INPE’s president José Pérez Guadalupe.
The country’s penal system has a major overcrowding problem, as 56,000 inmates live in 68 prisons designed to house 28,225, according to Pérez Guadalupe.
The program also wants to improve access to health services in prisons, increasing INPE personnel and offering training and better salaries to prison staff members and establish alternative sentencing programs, lowering the prison population.
“Participation of the private sector is a key component of the program, as the INPE seeks to contract food, biometrics, ankle monitoring for inmates and cellphone signal scrambling services,” Pérez Guadalupe added.
The C.R.E.O. program (Spanish acronym of “Creating Routes of Hope and Opportunity”), an educational initiative aimed at inmates between 18 to 35 years old, will be extended from the six prisons where it’s implemented today to all of the country’s penitentiaries, Pérez Guadalupe said.
Paraguay: Rehab help needed
Horacio Galeano Perrone, a Paraguayan analyst on security issues, said the majority of countries lack effective social reintegration policies.
“[In Latin America], there are few prisons with people trained to handle and manage detention centers,” he said. “This, together with the lack of infrastructure, is more than a problem – it’s a tragedy.”
In Paraguay, a nation with a prison population of 6,146, NGOs such as the Torypá Foundation, made up of former inmates from the Tacumbú Federal Prison, are working to rehabilitate prisoners and provide support so they won’t return to their lives of crime upon release.
But Galeano Perrone said these efforts don’t address the root cause, which is the mixing of convicts with those awaiting trial.
He proposes following the example of countries such as Chile, which strives to provide inmates with the skills needed to make a smooth return to society.
“Rehabilitation is the secret to the effectiveness of the inmate’s social reinsertion,” he said. “It’s not just about the punishment.”
Antonio Ordóñez contributed from Guatemala City, Mario Beroes from Caracas, Venezuela, and René Novoa from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.