Focus on Prison Conditions: Latin America
By Renata Koch Alvarenga & Daniel Garay
Latin America is notorious for its gangs and violence, but more deplorable is the state of its prisons. Starting in the 1990s, human rights groups began monitoring the prison conditions in Latin America and found gruesome details.
The physical deterioration of facilities and lack of money invested in the prison system created conditions that were dangerous for prisoners’ health and longevity with overcrowding, riots, and mass escapes.
According to a 1997 Human Rights Watch report, “Massacres, riots, and other violent incidents have been occurring in prisons across the region, providing further evidence of the widespread failure of Latin America’s penal systems.” More shocking was that large portions of the prison population were yet to be sentenced and were not told of opportunities for bail. Since then, reforms were promised and made after public outcry.
But has there been an improvement in the last 20 years? Look at Brazil, Venezuela, and Mexico as examples.
Brazil, a country of much economic progress, runs prisons whose conditions worsen every year and notably lacks reform in prison infrastructure which leads to an increase in violence and crime from within them.
According to the Daily Mail, a big part of the violence that takes place in Brazilian prisons originate from damaged cells as it allows the prisoners to roam throughout the facility and coordinate with other inmates.
Riots are a common occurrence and lead to injuries and deaths of prisoners and their guards. Pedrinhas prison, located in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, is infamous for its prison gangs and riots; however, the problem is not only on the structural situation of Brazilian facilities.
With the number of inmates having quadrupled in the last 20 years, overcrowding is one of the main factors of the current crisis on prisons in the Latin American nation. Brazil is only behind China, Russia, and the United States as having the largest prison population, as reported by the International Business Times.
Prison violence in Latin America is not limited to Brazil. A study by the Prison’s Observatory concluded that a Venezuelan is at least 20 times more likely to be murdered in jail than on the streets, as stated by The Economist.
Venezuela has an issue with overcrowded prisons as well. In 13 years, former president Hugo Chavez’s government built only one prison in the country, while more than 70 percent of the inmates currently living in Venezuelan prisons have not been sentenced. Inmates waiting for a sentence end up meeting hardened gang members in prison, creating a vicious cycle of violence that ranges from Venezuela to Brazil.
In the north, however, Mexico has prisons which highlight another vice: corruption. Due to the lack of funding for prisons and low salaries for the guards, they become part of a “spiral of corruption.” This came to light during the shocking escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
According to Reuters, “Guards earn less than $1,000 a month. Many take advantage of the prison market to pull in extra cash but they are also under pressure to cooperate with gangsters whose foot soldiers can easily threaten them and their families outside.”
This cycle of corruption is not a secret. A Washington Post article in the wake of Mr. Guzmán’s escape quoted the Mexican interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, saying that Guzmán could not have escaped if it were not for the complicity of prison guards. He called it “disloyalty and treason” to Mexicans and security forces for their work to capture the drug lord. The tunnel, which was built for the escape, was located beneath the prison. Its layout is a state secret. Yet “El Chapo” was able to escape from a tunnel conveniently placed under the shower of his cell.
The tense situation in Latin American prisons has gotten the attention of international organisms, according to the Human Rights Watch, various Latin American countries have joined effort to establish a United Nations mechanism to monitor the treatment of persons in prison, looking to diminish the current failure of penal systems in the Latin American region and the issues of overcrowding, corruption, abuse, and violence.