Overcrowding Causes Regional Crisis in Penitentiary Systems

By Gaudin, Andres | NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, July 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Overcrowding Causes Regional Crisis in Penitentiary Systems


Gaudin, Andres, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs


The crisis in South America's penitentiary system is a product of the subhuman overcrowding to which inmates are subjected. "A punishment added to that meted out by the courts," says Alvaro Garce, Uruguay's parliamentary prison commissioner. "A state crime against the people," says Cezar Peluso, president of Brazil's Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF). The crisis is forcing authorities in several countries to try out possible solutions. Chile and Brazil have already licensed--outsourced--services in several prisons, transferring provision of some inmate services--health care, food, hygiene, education--to private companies.

Now, Brazil has announced that it will build the first two private prisons in Latin America, following an experience initiated by the US in the 1980s and then implemented by Great Britain and other European countries.

In late 2010, the Uruguayan Congress approved an emergency law allocating US$15 million to construct new prisons that will reduce overcrowding. (Official statistics indicate the country houses 9,000 prisoners in facilities designed to hold no more than 5,000.)

All South American countries, without exception, face the moral condemnation of humanitarian organizations and specialized agencies of the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS), which have denounced the degrading conditions to which their respective prison populations are subjected.

Brazil takes the lead in private-prison experiment

However, Brazil is moving forward on the path of privatization, which no other country in the region has yet dared to explore. In mid-June, the government officially announced construction of two prisons, based on the Public-Private Partnerships (Parcerias Publico-Privadas, PPPs) model, developed by the British government, which uses private capital to pay for public infrastructure.

The two prisons will be the Complexo Prisional de Ribeirao das Neves in the east-central state of Minas Gerais and the Centro Integrado de Ressocializacao de Itaquitinga in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. The prisons will have a combined capacity of 3,000 inmates.

Backers of the PPPs, such as Marcos Siqueira Moraes of the Minas Gerais state government, says one advantage of the system is that it allows financing of costly projects, in which the state does not then have to invest millions of dollars. In addition, says Siqueira, "The PPP promotes better service, since private businesses have economic incentives to do a good job."

Nevertheless, PPP detractors say that what happens is just the opposite, and they question whether the state's functions and responsibilities should be put into private hands. That is the position of the Catholic Church's prison ministry (Pastoral Carcelaria), which criticized the new private prisons, saying, "Business participates to make a profit and uses the inmates to achieve that."

The religious organization is not the only one questioning privatization. Other critics fear that turning penitentiaries into businesses could encourage more arrests.

The Minas Gerais government announced that it would pay US$50 per day for each inmate that the Gestores Prisionais Associados (GPA) consortium houses in the prison it is building on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, the state capital. That comes to US$75,000 per day, US$2.3 million per month, for its projected 1,500 prisoners.

Siqueira Moraes said that the open debate on whether the system would encourage more arrests makes no sense because the state's prisons are already overpopulated. Brazil's prisons are among the most overcrowded in the world. UN figures indicate that some 470,000 inmates are incarcerated in prisons whose maximum capacity is 300,000.

For Siqueira Moraes, private prisons, such as the one in Ribeirao das Neves, will alleviate this situation and, in addition, provide higher quality services for the inmates.

Security expert Lucia Dammert, a Chilean researcher with the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), says that, although it is valid to ask whether the private prisons will encourage arrests, she does not think that is the case in countries with high levels of overcrowding. …

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