What Reforms Are Needed in Latin America's Prison Systems?

09 Octubre 2012
In the media

Are prison systems broken in Latin America? What are the economic costs of malfunctioning prison systems in the region? What kinds of reforms are needed?

Q: More than 130 inmates broke out of a prison in Piedras Negras, Mexico on Sept. 17 in an escape believed to have been orchestrated by the Zetas drug cartel. Last month, a prison riot in Venezuela left more than 20 people dead. In February, more than 350 people were killed when a fire swept through a prison in Honduras. And in January, three inmates died in a prison blaze in Uruguay. Are prison systems broken in Latin America? What are the economic costs of malfunctioning prison systems in the region? What kinds of reforms are needed?

A: Pien Metaal, project coordinator for Latin America drug law reform at the Transnational Institute: "The crisis in the prison systems in all Latin American countries is a ticking time bomb that needs to be addressed immediately. Overcrowding and deficient infrastructure are causing a tremendous level of human suffering, indignity and violence. The costs to society are high and will be felt for years to come, as this system creates rather than reduces criminal behavior. Serious reforms are needed to ensure fair trials for the accused and address deficiencies in criminal justice administration, which are causing an unacceptably high rate of preventive detentions.

There is also a clear indication that harsh drug laws have been a considerable factor in fueling the prison overcrowding in eight countries in the region over the past two decades, as documented in our Systems Overload study. Typically, those imprisoned come from the lowest ranks of the drug trafficking chain, or they are simply drug consumers detained in the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Also, the study established a notable increase in the amount of women detained for drug trafficking charges, most of whom are from economically deprived sectors of society, single mothers and non-violent offenders. Reforms to these drug laws would help alleviate overcrowding to a certain extent, but more reforms are needed. Government should increase their budgets and refrain from privatizing these institutions, since this level of human indignity cannot be left to market forces."