Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Prisons "Inhuman, Degrading and Cruel" – Supreme Court Report

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - The Chilean prison system has again been described as being in crisis, this time by a Supreme Court report which pointed to serious problems related to overcrowding, rehabilitation, food distribution, hours spent in lockdown, punishment procedures and deaths of inmates.

Treatment of prisoners is "inhuman, degrading and cruel," said Supreme Court prosecutor, Mónica Maldonado, on Jun. 6 when she publicly released the report, presented on Jun. 1 to the Senate Constitution, Legislation, Justice and Regulations Commission.

However, this assessment was rebutted by Justice Ministry authorities, who highlighted the government's large outlays on infrastructure and personnel in recent years.

"We believe the prison system is not in crisis, but over-extended, because law enforcement is now much more effective and has led to an expansion of the prison population," said deputy Justice Minister Jorge Frei, who nonetheless announced the creation of a public-private commission to lay the foundations for prison reform.

The commission will be made up of the Gendarmería (the prison guards' body) and the Justice and Interior Ministries, as well as representatives from the private Fundación Paz Ciudadana (Citizen Peace Foundation), the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), the University of Chile's Centre for Studies on Citizen Security and the Justice Studies Centre of the Americas (JSCA).

In her report, Maldonado says that since she was appointed prosecutor in 2001, she has repeatedly reported to the justice minister and the head of the Gendarmería about "the deplorable living conditions in the country's prisons" due to "overcrowding" and "the lack of a prisons policy and concrete actions to enable inmates to rejoin society."

"The present consensus among the authorities and specialized bodies is that the situation has grown acutely worse over the last few years," her report says.

Since October 2003, the prison population in this South American country of 16 million people rose from 38,266 to 53,482 inmates.

In an interview with IPS, Álvaro Cuadra, professor of criminal law and researcher at the private Diego Portales University’s human rights centre, agreed with prosecutor Maldonado's assessment.

Cuadra said "violations of basic human rights" in Chilean jails have been pointed out on numerous occasions by several different bodies and experts, including the Organisation of American States Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of their Liberty, Florentín Meléndez, who visited this country in August 2008.

Maldonado recognised that six new prisons, which meet international infrastructure standards, have been built and are now operating as private concessions, but said they are "insufficient to cover the shortage." More prisons are urgently needed, especially in the three largest regions in the centre of the country: the Metropolitan region, Valparaíso and Bío-Bío.

For instance, the Santiago Sur Preventive Detention Centre in the capital, built in 1843, has a capacity for 3,170 inmates, but currently holds 6,690.

The seriousness of the problem demands urgent and "creative" solutions, said Maldonado, who added that the authorities' customary reply that it was necessary to wait for "prisons being built or still on the drawing-board" to be finished, was "unacceptable."

In addition to overcrowding, Maldonado listed eight other major problems, including the number of hours that inmates are spent in lockdown in their cells, and the serving of meals.

"The overcrowding is exacerbated by the inmates' being locked up for approximately 15 hours a day in crowded cells which generally lack toilets and adequate light and ventilation," she said.

The prosecutor criticised the "lack of policies and plans for the rehabilitation of the inmates, as well as a lack of work and educational, sporting, spiritual and recreational activities."

She also described the appalling hygiene and sanitary conditions in some prisons. She particularly mentioned the intermittent supply of drinking water in prisons in the northern city of Arica and the Pacific port of Valparaíso, a problem that has dragged on for at least four years.

According to her report, in one sector of the notorious Santiago Sur Preventive Detention Centre the cells are so crowded that some inmates have to sleep on mattresses in the damp prison corridor, which is full of rubbish.

Irregularities were also found in punishment regimes and the use of isolation cells.

"Although improvements have been made to the punishment cells in some regions, it is still cruel and degrading to lock a person in for up to 10 days in an empty cell, without so much as a cot, mattress or blankets, which are provided only at night," Maldonado said.

"These cells normally have no natural or electric lighting, except for what filters in through a very small barred opening. They often lack toilets and the prisoner is dependent on the goodwill of the guards to be allowed out to perform his natural functions, or for plastic containers for this use. And reading is impossible," she said.

"In some cases, between four and six inmates may be shut up in a single isolation cell, without enough mattresses for them all," in contravention of prison regulations which state that the punishment for the most serious breaches of discipline – confinement for a maximum of 10 days – must be served in solitary isolation.

Furthermore, Maldonado pointed out that Chile has signed several international treaties and resolutions that "commit and oblige it to abolish or restrict the use of isolation in a punishment cell as a disciplinary measure."

Finally, the report says 30 inmates died in fights in Santiago prisons in 2008, and a similar number so far this year.

Another serious problem in the prison system is the working conditions of the prison guards, who lack training, work excessively long hours and are poorly paid, Cuadra told IPS. "In these circumstances, the incentives for participating in torture and corruption are quite strong," he said.

On another controversial topic, prosecutor Maldonado affirmed that in some prisons, privileges are granted to inmates convicted of drug trafficking, or who profess evangelical faiths. This has been vehemently denied by government authorities.

"The prison problem, which is still with us after all this time, will not be solved by passing new laws, but by the authorities having the political will to implement prison policies, carry out the actions they plan, and evaluate the results," Maldonado concluded.

According to Cuadra, "more use should be made of alternatives to prison sentences, and more prison benefits (such as weekend or work leave) should be granted, so that there is more space within the prisons."

He also proposed "professionalising the Gendarmería" and "improving prison infrastructure," because the prisons put out to private tender, in spite of their improvements, "pose serious core problems that must be corrected, if they are to continue operating."

As for rehabilitation, Cuadra proposed increasing funding resources, as in 2008 the Gendarmería devoted only 2.4 percent of its budget to this activity.

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