Latin American prisons are ‘territories of the underworld’

View of Palmasola's prison, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on November 27, 2009. In Parmasola there are some 1500 prisoners, men and women, who coexist together in the jail's district. (DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

View of Palmasola's prison, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on November 27, 2009. In Parmasola there are some 1500 prisoners, men and women, who coexist together in the jail's district. (DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Manuel Egea for Infosurhoy.com-17/12/2009

MURCIA, Spain –César Barros Leal, the president of the Institute of Human Rights of Brazil, criticized the "victimization" of inmates caused by the prison system in Latin America and the “unwillingness of governments to improve conditions in prisons.”

Barros Leal’s remarks came at the First International Iberoamerican Conference of Victimology and Victim Human Rights held at the University of Murcia in Spain on Dec. 14, where he presented his work “The Latin American prison system as a generator of victims.”

“Territories of the underworld,” “gray social-distortion centers” and “dark deposits of living beings” were some of the adjectives he used to describe the Latin American prisons he has visited during the past 25 years. He concluded the prisons are “visibly inadequate, overcrowded and cramped, filled mostly with youth and poor, many with serious illnesses and victims of beatings by their [guards].”

The Latin American prison system shows symptoms of inefficiency and ungovernability, Barros Leal said.

“The first of which is evidenced by the emphasis by these countries on maximum criminal law, mass incarceration, and the misuse of preventive imprisonment,” he said. “In some countries, over 70% of the prison population consists of prisoners who have not been convicted.”

Barros Leal, who was accompanied by Hilda Marchiori, director of the Office of Human Rights and Judicial Justice of Córdoba in Argentina, claimed the prisons’ repressive policies combined with repeated human rights violations lead to revolts, which happen frequently.

He points out that prison riots happened in Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and Panama because each country was slow in improving the conditions of their facilities. Meanwhile, prison officials in El Salvador dealt with suicidal protests, while Uruguayan prisoners held hunger strikes, Venezuelan prisoners performed self-mutilations and blood strikes, Honduran inmates committed murders and Argentine inmates burned mattresses to instigate riots.

Barros Leal said prisons also are a hotbed for corruption and illegal activity. He claims the extortion among the prisons’ staff and inmate leaders, the constant flow of illegal drugs, and inmates being placed in isolation for up to 360 days instead of the customary 30 have caused life in prison to become more violent.

"In São Paulo, where there are 180 prisons, 75 are dominated by gangs," said Barros Leal. “But this is something that extends to virtually all of Latin America and has been repeatedly denounced.”

Barros Leal, however, said the most serious problem facing the region’s prison system is overcrowding, which causes the deterioration of basic services, education, health services, nutrition, legal assistance and overall safety. Thus, among the nearly 20 countries with prison populations at or above the level considered “critical” set at 120%, the Dominican Republic reaches 145%, Honduras 146%, Bolivia 162% and Brazil 181%.

Barros Leal said he had visited a prison in Tijuana, Mexico that had the capacity to house 2,800 inmates, but had 5,094, which included men and women being jailed together in the same area with no separation. The Northern Men's Prison in Mexico City lumps its 14,000 inmates together, as there’s no separation between violent and non-violent offenders.

“The State of São Paulo [Brazil] houses half the population of the nation's prisons, which is close to 500,000 inmates, and about the same amount as in all of Mexico,” Barros Leal said. “More than 1,000 people go monthly to prison, which would [cause] us [to] have [to] build two or three prisons each month.”

Barros Leal said Latin American countries haven’t done a good job exploring alternatives to prison.

“There is no government interest in improving conditions of prisoners, or building good prisons,” he said. “The prison issue has never been a priority in virtually all Latin America, and now we are paying a heavy price.”

Comments and ratings are closed for this article.


  • Joseph | 2010-07-17

    Very, very interesting subject, I would like to have more information about that important subject, since I am studying that material in my country and with it I could contribute to promoting interest in it, thank you my email is [email protected]

  • NELCIVANIA | 2009-12-19

    I liked very much your comments about the Latin-American prison system. It is always good to alert the authorities to the precarious conditions in some countries and to call their attention to situations that are usually left unattended.

  • Jose Francisco Garrido | 2009-12-17

    Interesting article, congratulations.