Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS: Latin America’s Prisons – Hell on Earth

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Sep 14 2004 (IPS) - Name: David Pastor. Sentence: Five years in prison. Charge: Stealing a pair of glasses.

The criminal record of this 24-year-old Mexican is similar to those of many of the more than 650,000 inmates in Latin America’s prisons, which are veritable infernos where human rights don’t count.

“Here you’re tough or they control you, but if you’re sharp you can get by ok,” says Pastor, who is in the Varonil Norte prison in the Mexican capital, which was built to hold 4,892 prisoners but currently houses nearly 8,500.

In Latin America’s penitentiaries, where riots, violence and overcrowding are part of the everyday landscape, there are thousands of inmates, mainly from the lowest socioeconomic strata, serving sentences for minor crimes like shoplifting because they could not afford an adequate legal defence.

In prison, “you have to win your place, and you can’t drop your guard even when you’re sleeping, because it’s full of rats (thieves and murderers) and other species,” says Pastor, who adds that he has no plans for the future, for when he gets out of prison.

The United Nations Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD) says prisons in the region, instead of serving as places where inmates pay for what they did and are rehabilitated, have become human warehouses and schools of crime.

Illustrations of the dire conditions in penitentiaries in Latin America abound. In the Urso Branco prison in Porto Velho, Brazil, 14 detainees were killed by fellow inmates during an uprising last April.

During the riot, the prisoners threw bodies off the roof and brandished body parts of five inmates they had mutilated.

At La Esperanza prison in El Salvador, an Aug. 31 uprising left 31 dead and a similar number wounded, and in May more than 100 inmates died in a prison fire in Honduras.

According to the Costa Rica-based ILANUD, the flagrant violations of the human rights of prisoners are aggravated by the severe overcrowding.

That problem was found in the prisons of every one of the 18 countries studied by ILANUD in 2003, but in 15 the overcrowding reached critical levels: overpopulation rates of 120 percent of capacity or higher.

In many countries, the majority of prisoners have not even been sentenced yet. In Honduras, 79 percent of inmates are pending sentencing, in Uruguay 72 percent, Ecuador 70 percent, Peru 67 percent, Panama 58 percent and Bolivia 56 percent.

As a result, many spend months or even years in prison before they are sentenced or declared innocent.

In Latin America, those deprived of their freedom are basically deprived of all of their fundamental rights and subjected to insalubrious and violent conditions, which in and of themselves constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, says the ILANUD report.

A study by the Latinoamerican Commission for the Rights and Freedoms of the Workers and Peoples (CLADEHLT) says that for some inmates, prisons are “the beginning of a training programme from which they will graduate as criminals…(and) for the great majority, prisons are just a daily practice, a race against death.”

Homicide rates within Latin American prisons are 25 times higher than on the outside, and suicide rates are at least eight times higher.

“I don’t think anyone can argue that prisons are rehabilitation centres,” Silvia Otón, a penal lawyer who is handling the cases of several inmates in prisons in Mexico, told IPS. What they are, “with all of the corruption among guards and police, is a hell of injustices. There may be exceptions, but they are definitely very few.”

A report by the Mexican League for Defence of Human Rights (LIMEDDH), a member of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), says Mexico’s penitentiaries are schools of crime where there is no respect for even the most basic human rights.

Prisons throughout Latin America are described in similar terms.

The Human Rights Commission of Uruguay’s lower house of parliament describes the prisons of that South American country as “concentration camps where prisoners live in subhuman conditions.”

Uruguay’s 24 prisons, which were built to hold a total of 3,266 inmates, house 7,201, according to statistics from June 2003.

In Colombia’s prisons, “constitutional and human rights are flagrantly violated, which turns them into infernos,” states a report by that country’s ombudsman’s office.

Although the total capacity of Colombia’s 174 penitentiaries is 48,791 prisoners, they hold more than 66,500.

In Brazil, where 210,000 prisoners are held in installations built for a maximum of 180,000, human rights groups describe prisons as hotbeds of crime and violence.

In August, the Brazilian government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched a plan to improve health conditions in prisons, at a cost of nine million dollars a year.

“We cannot abolish prisons, but they can be improved,” said Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos, at the presentation of the plan. “We can ensure the detainee does not come out of prison worse than when he went in.”

In Argentina, inmates are sometimes coerced by prison staff to kill fellow prisoners, prosecutors, defence lawyers or even judges who try to denounce injustices or get the system under control, says a March report on that country by the International Observatory of Prisons.

The list of reports denouncing the conditions in Latin America’s prisons is long, and few contain any indication that the situation is improving.

Although a multitude of national laws and international conventions have been created to regulate the situation in prisons and attempt to guarantee respect for the rights of inmates, the situation in the region’s penitentiaries continues to decline.

“The state is chiefly responsible, because it does not want, or is unable, to guarantee the fundamental rights of inmates, and often confines them in situations of terrible injustices, fear and torture,” said the Mexican lawyer, Otón.

David Pastor, who is serving out his sentence in a tiny cell shared with three other inmates, says the prison system has marked him forever: “After living in here and seeing what I’ve seen, I’ll never be the same, I can tell you that.”

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