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ARGENTINA: ‘Cruel, Inhumane’ Prison Conditions in Mendoza

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 24 2005 (IPS) - Up to five prisoners sleep on the floor, without mattresses, in four square metre cells. They defecate in plastic bags and urinate in bottles. The corridors, littered with several days’ worth of garbage, are often flooded by sewage.

The “cruel, inhumane and degrading conditions” in three prisons in the western Argentine province of Mendoza are described by the London-based Amnesty International in a report released Wednesday in Buenos Aires.

“The medical staff is only called in after an inmate has died,” states the Amnesty report, the result of an exhaustive investigation that found that the prisoners have no medical records and that medicines are scarce, doctors do not enter the prison wings, and inmates with medical problems often intentionally cut or otherwise hurt themselves to get medical attention.

In a conversation with IPS, activist Josefina Salomón said that many of Amnesty’s recommendations for bringing about rapid improvements in prison conditions “require political will more than funds.” Nonetheless, the measures have not been adopted, or at least not with the urgency required.

Salomón admitted that in a country with serious public security problems and steadily rising crime rates like Argentina, it is difficult to sensitise society about the severity of the mistreatment of prisoners, even though it is a violation of the national and provincial laws and constitutions.

But she warned that “Prisons like the ones in Mendoza only make the problem worse. Inmates, most of whom have not yet even been tried and sentenced, come out worse than when they went in.”

According to the Argentine constitution, prisons must be “clean, healthy and safe,” and are not aimed at “castigation” but at rehabilitation. The constitution of the province of Mendoza also states that jails are built “for security, not to mortify the inmates.”

Mendoza is not the only province where prisoners are held in appalling conditions. In penitentiary facilities in the province of Buenos Aires, where most of the country’s inmates are concentrated, riots and other forms of violence that often lead to deaths are becoming more and more routine.

Amnesty expressed concern that only two of 40 violent deaths of inmates in the province of Buenos Aires since 2000 have been investigated.

It also reported that guards use hoods when beating prisoners in the searches that are regularly carried out to maintain discipline. To protest the mistreatment and severe conditions, 14 inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 sewed their mouths shut for several days earlier this year.

Citing testimony by human rights lawyers in Mendoza, the Amnesty report says that a number of the young officers involved in torturing political prisoners in the province during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship now hold high-level posts in the Mendoza prison system.

Amnesty also interviewed the families of prisoners. A father whose 20-year-old son was arrested at the age of 16 for robbery – and is still awaiting sentencing – told the human rights group that the mistreatment of the inmates and their families by the guards is constant. “We’re the ones in charge here, the judges can keep their mouths shut,” was the response the father said he got when he complained about how his son was treated.

The father said the guards spit in his son’s food, and that his clothing was stolen and the food his family brings him was thrown into the courtyard “to be eaten by the pigeons.” When he protested, he was warned that he might get his son back “in a box.”

The Amnesty mission that drew up the report visited the prisons in May and met with provincial authorities, human rights attorneys and the families of prisoners. It also gathered information from inspections carried out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the same prisons in 2004.

On that occasion, IACHR commissioner Florentín Meléndez said that in “La Penitenciaria”, the name of the main prison in Mendoza, it was impossible to distinguish any bathrooms, and that “the sewage system is collapsed. The state of abandonment is absolute. The place is not even fit for animals.”

Built in the early 20th century, La Penitenciaria was designed to hold 600 prisoners. But the rundown installations now house 1,600 inmates, with sentenced and unsentenced prisoners mixed in together, as well as adults and young adults – between the ages of 18 and 21 – despite laws stipulating that the prison population must be classified and separated according to sentencing status and age.

The IACHR referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and in 2004, the Court ordered the Mendoza provincial government to immediately adopt provisional measures to “protect the lives and personal integrity of inmates” and to investigate the mistreatment and violent deaths.

The demand was repeated in June, but according to Amnesty there have been no substantial improvements.

The human rights organisation did acknowledge, however, that the Mendoza provincial government plans to build new prisons and has somewhat eased the overcrowding with several transfers of prisoners. In addition, it recognised that the provincial government had taken a cooperative attitude towards the Amnesty delegation.

Nevertheless, there have been no improvements in the sanitary conditions, or in the availability of potable water. Nor are there sufficient mattresses, and the few existing ones are of terrible quality, said an IACHR delegate sent to Mendoza in October. He also reported that prisoners continue to be shut in their cells for excessively long periods, and that inmates are not yet classified and separated according to status or age.

The October visit by the IACHR found that the health of inmates was still “deplorable” and that doctors did not visit the prisoners, nor were there any nurses, dentists, psychiatrists or psychologists to attend to the prisoners or the guards, who have fewer hours off than they are supposed to.

The Amnesty report states that the Mendoza government opened a second legal office this year with the aim of expediting the dispensation of justice, although the office has been empty since March.

Amnesty urged the provincial authorities to live up to the recommendations of the IACHR and Inter-American Court, and underlined the urgent need for the government to draw up a penitentiary policy with the participation of civil society and to guarantee the necessary budget funds for putting it into practice as soon as possible.

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