Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-CHILE: Reforms Humanize Prisons and Ease Overcrowding

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, May 30 2001 (IPS) - The Iquique prison tragedy, in which 26 inmates died in a fire, has finally brought home the gravity of the Chilean penal system’s crisis, prompting authorities to take steps toward reducing overcrowding and humanizing prison conditions.

The Ricardo Lagos government will send an urgent bill to the Chilean Congress on June 5 to pardon 700 prisoners who are considered non-violent – a belated action under the auspices of the Jubilee 2000 initiative sponsored by the Vatican.

The bill, suggested by Church authorities here last year but obtaining little official attention at the time, will also facilitate the expulsion of 700 foreign prisoners who are currently serving time for minor crimes and with more than half of their sentences completed.

These efforts are two initial steps towards counteracting the 63.7-percent deficit of prison space in a country with an inmate population of 35,991 people. Chile’s 110 penitentiaries have a combined capacity of just 20,000.

Prison overcrowding here is among the worst in Latin America, surpassed only by Panama and Costa Rica, according to the United Nations Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention (ILANUD).

The night of May 20-21, a prison fire in the port city of Iquique, 1,870 km north of Santiago, left 26 inmates dead, most of them 18 to 20 years old.

Magistrate Jaime Chamorro, designated special inquiry judge for the incident, began investigations on May 22 to determine if the prisoners themselves were responsible for the blaze during a reported riot, or if it was started accidentally.

So far, it has become clear that the consequences of the incident were aggravated by cramped living conditions at the prison, built in 1981 to house 1,000 inmates but home to 1,600 today.

Iquique’s 60-percent deficit in space is far from being the worst of the 110 prisons run by the Gendarmerie General Directorate, a division of the Justice Ministry in charge of monitoring, maintenance and administration of the institutions.

There are 36 prisons in Chile that are in worse condition than Iquique, according to Gendarmerie data.

The most dramatic cases of overcrowding are found in the penal complexes in the city of Limache, some 100 km northwest of Santiago, and in Copiapó, 800 km north of the capital, reveals a study by the Santiago-based Citizen Peace Foundation.

In Limache, there are 266 inmates in a prison with a capacity to hold just 54, meaning the deficit is 393 percent. The Copiapó facility, meanwhile, suffers a 307-percent deficit, with 496 prisoners inhabiting in a space intended for 122 people.

The day after the Iquique tragedy, inmates at the prison in Puente Alto, a town southeast of Santiago, launched a protest in solidarity with the 26 who died in the fire and to demand improved prison conditions.

The protesting prisoners did not lack motives. At the Puente Alto facility, a section holding 80 inmates has just one water basin, three faucets with potable water and four lavatories.

In addition to the overcrowding, there is a persistent lack of prison guards. The current total is 6,500, and many of them, as in the case of Puente Alto, take on extra shifts, working as many as 100 hours each week.

One of the first measures announced by Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez following the Iquique deaths was to add another 3,500 prison guards to the national system, requiring the additional expenditure of 35 million dollars a year.

Under instructions from President Lagos, other prison-related projects will also be accelerated, with backing from the private sector, including the construction of 10 new penal complexes, expanding Chile’s prison capacity by 16,000. This would cover the current deficit – estimated at 13,000.

But Carlos Valdivieso, head of Citizen Peace, warns that these efforts are a futile race against time because the country’s prison population is growing at a pace of 2,000 to 3,000 new inmates a year.

“Building a prison takes two or three years. By the time they finish construction, they’ll need more. The nation cannot be continually building prisons, which is why we must reform the penal system,” Valdivieso said in an interview with ‘La Segunda’ newspaper.

Chile’s strict anti-narcotics law, which took effect in the early 1990s, has had a multiplier effect on the number of inmates because it establishes mandatory sentences, for example, of five years for the possession of 10 grams of cocaine or 25 grams of marijuana.

The impact of the drug legislation was felt most in Arica, Iquique, Copiapó and other northern Chilean cities, where drug trafficking is more common as the region is closer to the narcotics production of neighbouring Bolivia and Peru.

In the saturated Iquique complex, 80 percent of the inmates are serving sentences for drug-related crimes, many of which did not involve violence.

Minister Gómez and lawmaker Alberto Espina, of the right-wing opposition, agreed this week to propose legal reforms that promote shorter sentences and rehabilitation for those serving time for minor crimes.

For his part, national Prosecutor-General Guillermo Piedrabuena has suggested designating a commission to advise Chilean judges on authorising provisional freedom for those awaiting trial, thus avoiding the imprisonment of many individuals – at least until a court finds them guilty of the charges.

The alarm sounded by the Iquique tragedy has also prompted the authorities to take action towards improving the living conditions of the prisoners.

In the 24 highest-risk facilities, officials are providing flame-resistant blankets and mattresses to the inmates and redistributing the prison population in the space available to reduce overcrowding where possible.

Hugo Espinoza, director of the Gendarmerie, reports that in the construction of new prisons, the government is planning to hire private firms, which will also take on some of the operational duties, including providing meals for the inmates – an attempt to improve taste and nutritional quality.

Currently, many of the prisoners refuse to eat the food provided in the prison cafeterias, opting instead to cook their own meals in their cells, using small kerosene or gas stoves – another factor contributing to the risk of fire in the overcrowded Chilean prisons.

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