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

ARGENTINA: Prison Policy – ‘Dump and Exterminate’, Say Activists

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 14 2010 (IPS) - The violent deaths of four inmates in Argentine prisons in recent weeks confirmed the “systematic” violation of human rights in the country’s penitentiaries, according to human rights activists.

The Coordinating Committee against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI), an organisation for families of the victims of police brutality, has documented 2,826 deaths since the restoration of democracy in this South American country in December 1983, up to October 2009.

Of those fatalities, 33 percent took place in prisons, juvenile detention centres or police station holding cells. A considerable number of the deaths were attributed to suicides or fights between inmates, but CORREPI says that prison authorities played at least an incitement role in these.

CORREPI says that abusive treatment in prisons occurs all over the country, but is particularly serious in two provinces: Buenos Aires, home to 34 percent of Argentina’s 38.5 million people, and the western province of Mendoza.

In 2004 and 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered provisional measures to be taken to protect the life and personal integrity of inmates in certain prisons in those two provinces.

The Court also required the state to clarify the circumstances surrounding deaths that occurred in specific facilities in Mendoza.

In its December 2009 report on prison conditions, CORREPI said that according to official reports, of the four deaths that month, one was due to burns, one was a suicide, one person died in a fight with a prison guard and one was shot at close range. The deceased were three men and a woman between the ages of 22 and 30.

Pablo Salinas, a lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs in the Argentine prison cases before the Inter-American justice system, told IPS that precautionary measures had been ordered for two penitentiaries in Mendoza: the provincial prison, known as Boulogne Sur Mer, in the capital of Mendoza, and the Lavalle Penal Colony.

Only one other prison in the Americas, in Urso Branco in the Brazilian state of Rondonia, has been handed a similar order from the Inter-American Court, the Mendoza lawyer said.

In its 2006 ruling, the Court reiterated that the Argentine state has the duty to protect the life and personal integrity of persons deprived of liberty, and ordered provincial and national authorities to undertake “effective and transparent” coordination to remedy the critical situation of overcrowding and insecurity.

The Argentine state acknowledged its responsibility for the situation at the Court hearings. The following year, in February 2007, the Argentine Supreme Court itself ordered Mendoza authorities to ensure that human rights are respected in prison facilities.

But nearly three years later, “unfortunately, the situation remains unchanged” in Mendoza prisons, Salinas said.

Human rights organisations in Mendoza reported that the Boulogne Sur Mer prison, built in the early 20th century, houses 1,700 inmates although it has capacity for only 500.

The prison “is built over a sewer, and inmates dip their knives in the raw sewage and then attack each other. Stab wounds become infected, sometimes causing meningitis. The entire sewer system is in a state of collapse,” Salinas said.

He added that “the healthcare system is like something out of Dante’s Inferno, to the point that inmates have to cut or injure themselves in order to receive medical attention. The self-inflicted wounds infect them with hepatitis B, and in other cases, sexual abuse leads to AIDS and syphilis.”

Seventeen deaths occurred at the Boulogne Sur Mer prison in 2004, when complaints began to be filed with the Inter-American human rights system. A new facility to relieve congestion is being built, but is proving to be no solution, the lawyer said.

At the new prison of Almafuerte, 45 minutes by road from the city of Mendoza, the policies and practices are much the same. “The worst thing is the hours spent on lockdown, as well as the lack of hygiene and safety for the prisoners,” Salinas said.

Mendoza, a province devoted mainly to vineyards and wine-making and which in former decades enjoyed a high standard of living, has been the setting for various “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies to clamp down on crime.

Governor Celso Jaque had appointed to the province’s security services several officials implicated in the human rights violations committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship – when as many as 30,000 leftists and other dissidents fell victim to torture and forced disappearance – but was forced to remove them under pressure from human rights activists and the central government of President Cristina Fernández.

Although both Fernández and Jaque belong to the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, the president is in the centre-left faction of the party and Jaque in its right wing.

The Mendoza provincial legislature created the post of ombudsperson for prison affairs, and approved specific mechanisms for preventing the use of torture in prisons. However, implementation of both these measures has been delayed by the governor’s office.

Human rights abuses in Argentine prisons are also concentrated in the province of Buenos Aires, governed by conservative Peronist Daniel Scioli. The non-governmental Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) has just issued its 2009 Report on Human Rights in Argentina, in which it roundly condemns prison management by the local authorities.

The human rights group’s report says the Buenos Aires provincial government has adopted prison policies that cater to society’s demand for security by stiffening sentences and treatment of prisoners, and that regard constitutional rights as a hindrance to law enforcement.

According to CELS, the provincial government has focused again on heavy-handed “mano dura” policies, in spite of this strategy having had disastrous results in the past.

As a result, the province’s prison population was 24,166 at the end of 2008, with 3,448 more suspects being held at police stations, while the provincial government itself admitted that the capacity of its prisons was no more than 17,858 beds.

So far in 2010, conditions in Argentina’s prisons show no signs of improvement: a 24-year-old man was found hanged in his cell in a Mendoza prison. Lawyer Ismael Jalil, a member of CORREPI, complained to IPS about “how easy it is for prison guards to prepare the scene and make it look like suicide.”

Jalil said “prisoners are often used as drug mules (couriers) between police gangs. They are sent to another precinct and then suddenly turn up dead, apparently having committed suicide,” so that they cannot report the incident.

The lawyer described another way prisoners’ human rights are violated. The prison authorities act in collusion with the gangs that rule internal activities in prisons. As part of their deal, they hand over to the gangs prisoners who refuse to carry out the criminal activities they want them to perform.

In Argentina, the prevailing prison policy is “to dump human beings there for eventual extermination,” said Jalil.

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