Problems Widespread in Prisons throughout Region

Article excerpt

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a lengthy study on the prison situation in Latin American countries, in which it condemns a critical reality characterized by overcrowding, a serious shortage of facilities, corruption, and, in general, state neglect and civil society apathy. These factors, says the IACHR, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), have resulted in prisons becoming real dumping grounds for marginalized human beings whose most basic human rights have been violated.

The "Report on the Human Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas," released on May 10, courageously recognizes the existence of a dramatic situation, but it is not so much a report as a description of the sad reality lived by hundreds of thousands or people deprived of their liberty for having committed a crime. Although it identifies the causes of the violence to which prisoners are subjected, the study does not provide significant elements for analysis nor does it propose or suggest opening a debate on the issue.

"Overcrowding and overpopulation; the deficient conditions of confinement, both physical conditions and the lack of basic services; the high incidence of prison violence and the lack of effective control by the authorities" are the most serious and widespread problems in the prisons, the report says.

Inmates serving double sentences

"The absence of the state has meant that these brothers and sisters who one day were led to commit a crime are today serving two sentences, both equally dire: the privation of liberty for having committed a crime and the inhuman conditions to which they are subjected," said Jose Diaz, Uruguay's former interior minister.

The IACHR criticizes another situation common to all prisons in the region--the lack of work and educational programs. "In this regard, the fact that a state's prison population is considerably young makes it all the more necessary to carry out effective rehabilitation policies that include opportunities for study and work, because this is a population of people who could have a productive life ahead of them. If this is not done, that population runs the risk of remaining in a cycle of social exclusion and criminal recidivism," says the study.

To better understand the message of the 238page IACHR study, published "thanks to the support of the OAS Spain Fund," it is necessary to examine the report's biggest shortcoming: the absolute lack of statistical information.

In February 2012, amid a wave of violence that in just five days left the tragic toll of eight prisoners dead--two in Argentina, one in Chile, three in Uruguay, and two in Venezuela--the South American regional office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) summarized the regional reality. "These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence throughout the region, which is a direct result of the general state of the situation," said the OHCHR regional representative Americo Incalcaterra. However, the situation becomes even more dramatic when it is examined country by country.

Overcrowding the norm throughout region

In Argentina, three prisoners are confined to a space adequate for one. Unconfirmed reports say that 30% of the prison population could have AIDS and that 43% have not received a final sentence after having spent two years in prison. The Argentine nongovernmental organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) says that the system is "especially violent and gradually developed as an extension of the state's repressive apparatus " during the dictatorships that existed during much of the first eight decades of the 20th century.

In Colombia, "40,000 prisoners are in jail who have not been sentenced, 400 are disabled but are held in prison, and more than 400 are suffering from a terminal illness," said the Movimiento de Victimas de Crimenes del Estado (MOVICE) in late 2011. …