Above Capacity: Relieving Overcrowded Prison Systems in Latin America with International Drug Control Reform

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Prisoners held at La Esperanza who lack the money to purchase bunk space from their fellow inmates sleep on dirty cell floors and underneath other beds, enduring the oppressive heat as they serve out their sentences. (1) La Esperanza, a severely overcrowded penitentiary in San Salvador, El Salvador, means "hope" in Spanish, but its name must seem cruel to a prisoner in El Salvador--the country's nineteen prisons, built to hold 8,000, currently house around 24,000 prisoners. (2) Not only are the majority of prison systems in Latin America confronted with similar concerns, but prisons worldwide are currently facing an overcrowding crisis that is creating unprecedented challenges to criminal justice systems across the globe. (3)

The choice to deprive an individual of his liberty in response to criminal action involves a precarious balance of concern for public safety and respect for a human being's inherent rights of personal dignity. (4) Latin American governments have struggled with this delicate balance in attempting to curb the illicit drug trade because of two significant international issues. (5) The first, as exemplified by the situation in La Esperanza, concerns the current overcrowding crisis. (6) The second concern, however, relates to a long history of international unease regarding drug production, trafficking, and related violence that originates from Latin American countries, transnationally influencing international drug policy. (7) Latin American governments consider these issues while drafting domestic drug laws, and hitherto, those laws have overwhelmingly reflected international public safety concerns. (8) Many Latin American governments have, as a result, implemented harsh drug laws that have failed to meaningfully curb narcotics trafficking, as prisons throughout the region fill with low-level drug offenders, significantly contributing to the current overcrowding crisis. (9)

This Note will consider the context from which the prison crisis arose in Latin America, focusing on the deficiencies in current reform efforts. (10) Part II of this Note will discuss the overcrowded prison crisis in Latin America and its relation to the incarceration of drug offenders. (11) The changing role of drug laws and drug control standards set internationally and examples of their implementation in three Latin America countries will be examined in Part III. (12) Part IV will analyze the failure of prison reform attempts to adequately place the problem in the proper international context. (13) Finally, this Note will conclude in Part V that in order to appropriately address the prison crisis in Latin America, international cooperation is needed to deter current domestic practices throughout the region and endorse modifications to international drug control policy. (14)

II. FACTS: A WORLDWIDE CRISIS ARISES IN LATIN AMERICA

As prison populations steadily increase worldwide, criminal justice systems struggle to utilize resources available and conform to international standards for the treatment of prisoners. (15) Although expectations of privacy and the nature of individual rights are clearly restricted while in prison, a person's rights are not completely lost while incarcerated. (16) Overcrowding makes compliance with those international and regional human rights standards difficult, particularly in countries where resources are limited. (17) Overcrowding jeopardizes these basic rights and the safety of prisoners, leads to increased violence and long-term health issues, limits access to justice, and undermines the rehabilitative aims of imprisonment. (18) Significantly, those affected by such inadequate prison conditions are often the most marginalized populations of a society. (19) Although the causes of overcrowding may vary from country to country, there are common factors that contribute to overcrowding worldwide, as well as contributing causes distinctive to similarly developed geographic regions, such as Latin America and the Caribbean. …