Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Prisons of Death

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 5 2007 (IPS) - A riot and subsequent fire in an overcrowded prison in northern Argentina left at least 33 inmates dead and a dozen injured. While the authorities are investigating the causes of the violence, the tension among inmates, families demanding information, and prison officials continues to rise.

The crisis broke out Sunday evening after visiting time in a maximum security prison in the province of Santiago del Estero, which was holding 480 prisoners, although it was designed for just 200. Most of the prison’s inmates are in preventive detention, awaiting trial.

The executive director of the Civil Rights Association (ADC), Roberto Saba, explained to IPS that the overcrowding and its effects were mainly the result of overuse by judges of pretrial detention, because they are under pressure from public opinion clamouring for greater security.

“In the (eastern) province of Buenos Aires (the country’s most populous), 30,000 inmates are packed into installations built for 13,000. The immense majority – 80 percent – have not yet been tried, and the judges themselves acknowledge that on average, 28 percent of those who are prosecuted are found innocent in the end,” he said.

Overcrowding gives rise to unhygienic conditions and food shortages, which create “a breeding-ground for riots like the one in Santiago del Estero,” he warned.

The provincial minister of justice, Ricardo Daives, said Monday that the prisoners in Santiago del Estero rioted after a failed escape attempt.

The fire fighters who were called in said the main cause of death and injuries was inhalation of the toxic smoke created by the burning of mattresses.

But Judge Ramón Tarchini, who visited the prison – Unidad Penal Nº 1 de Varones – and talked to the inmates, said the causes of the violent incident are still under investigation, and that they are awaiting the results of the forensic exams. “No hypothesis has been ruled out,” he said.

The families of the inmates said they were anxious because of the lack of clear information about the causes of the fire and that they were worried about possible reprisals against survivors.

They also accused the prison guards of selling liquor and drugs in the prison and of subjecting the inmates’ visitors to humiliating searches.

“We want the judge to come,” the inmates “have always been mistreated,” and the guards “sell them drugs and alcohol; it’s not us who bring them in,” women standing outside the prison said between sobs while waiting for information about their loved ones and trying to communicate with prisoners from afar, through the windows.

Although the judge said the situation was under control by early Monday afternoon, the family members still caught glimpses of prisoners inside with burning blankets and mattresses. According to a report by the Telam state news agency, a group of inmates went out into a courtyard, where they were shot at with rubber bullets.

When the sound of shooting was heard outside the prison, ambulances and health personnel rushed in, and came out carrying injured men. Tarchini said the guards only used water to put down the latest incident, but admitted that he was unaware of whether a new outbreak of violence had occurred.

The judge admitted that the majority of the inmates have not been tried and that they had asked him to speed up their cases.

They also complained to him of the mistreatment and searches to which their visitors are subjected, and told him they were afraid of reprisals after this latest riot. “I gave them every guarantee,” Tarchini told reporters.

The riot is the worst that has ever occurred in Santiago del Estero, and one of the most tragic in the history of Argentina.

The highest death toll was in Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires in 1978, when 62 people were killed. And in 1990 and 2005, two different riots left 33 dead, each.

According to official statistics, 139 inmates were murdered in prisons in the province of Buenos Aires in 2003 – a statistic that prompted the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, to ask the Supreme Court to take a hand in the matter.

Judicial authorities, prosecutors, court-appointed lawyers, human rights activists and ordinary citizens took part in a hearing last Thursday that was called by the Court, in which CELS acknowledged that progress had been seen in the past two years. It complained, however, that 95 percent of the solutions promised in 2005 were still pending.

For example, the prison population has shrunk considerably, an improvement that is even more pronounced when police station lockups are taken into account. But progress has been unevenly distributed, the activists complained.

Prison conditions triggered more than 2,000 riots and other violent incidents in the first quarter of the year alone in penitentiaries in Buenos Aires province, they reported.

The director of the ADC said that although the province of Buenos Aires is one extreme, it illustrates the problems seen to a varying extent in virtually every district in the country.

According to the latest report from the Ministry of Justice, which dates back to 2003, at that time there were 52,000 prisoners, as well as another 10,000 held in police jails. There was some degree of overcrowding in more than 40 percent of the installations.

In the prison in Santiago del Estero where the riot broke out Sunday, the report said the capacity is for 200 inmates, but that 422 were held there, only 160 of whom had already been tried and sentenced.

However, relatives and lawyers of the prisoners said Monday that there are now 480 inmates.

The report by the Ministry of Justice also indicates that more than 95 percent of the country’s prisoners are men; nearly 90 percent did not graduate from high school; 82 percent never took a technical or vocational training course of any kind; and 64 percent had no wage-paying job at the time they were imprisoned.

Other aspects of the report came as a surprise, when the only facet of prison life that receives media coverage are the periodic riots and other violent incidents. The Ministry of Justice reported that 74 percent of prisoners had “exemplary”, “very good” or “good” conduct, 15 percent had not been assessed, and only 11 percent had mediocre or poor conduct.

In addition, 97 percent of prisoners had never tried to escape; 72 percent were first-time offenders; and a large majority were in prison for “robbery or attempted robbery.”

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