Deadly Chile prison fire puts heat on Latin America's crowded jails
The Chile fire, started by rioting prisoners, has drawn fresh attention to the poor conditions, lack of guards, and gang violence rampant in Latin American jails.
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Overall, more than 40 percent of Mexico's prison population is serving time without a sentence. “These systems are conceived as really looking at prison as the solution to the problem of security,” says Ana Paula Hernandez, who authored the Mexico chapter of the drug policy impact report. “They are not looking at what some of the alternatives to prison are.”Skip to next paragraph
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That is especially troubling, she says, because the kind of drug violence that is so explosive in Mexico today often replicates itself inside prison cells, with a corrupted system that allows traffickers to continue to operate.
Unsanitary conditions, lax security
Human rights workers across Latin America have also denounced unsanitary conditions, aggravated by overcrowding and a general lack of funds. The Venezuelan Prison Observatory, a nongovernmental organization in Caracas where prisoners' family members hold strikes demanding better conditions, says education in prisons has improved but most promised reforms have been stymied by lack of money.
Venezuela spends $2 per inmate per day, compared with $34 in the US and $83 in Europe, the group said in its 2009 annual report. Inmates lack even potable water, the group said. And while the government cut the number of inmate murders by a third over two years, 1,000 of the country's 33,000 prisoners were wounded or killed last year, the group said.
One of the problems is the scant number of guards when compared to the US, for example, where incarceration rates are among the highest in the world, says Wayne Pitts, a criminology professor at the University of Memphis who has studied prison conditions in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. It poses particular problems of control in preventive prison, where petty criminals, like the CD vendor in Santiago, are housed next to convicted drug traffickers and rapists. “Inmate-officer ratios in Latin America are a big problem,” he says.
That is what happened in Chile, where only four guards were patrolling the inside of the San Miguel prison, where 1,900 are housed. The Chilean Congress formed a committee this week to investigate the San Miguel fire and the president promised reform, including $460 million toward building new prisons and improving conditions. The government will “change the root, hopefully forever, of our penal system,” President Sebastian Piñera said this week.
'We need alternatives to incarceration'
His call comes as groups such as Human Rights Watch demand immediate reform to the system, in which the death rate from violence is rising, says Jose Maldonado, president of the National Penal Officers Association in Chile. Twenty guards have died on the job in the country in the past two decades, and 170 prisoners have suffered serious injuries this year.
But he is skeptical that profound change will arrive. “These 81 have revived consciousness today, but we don’t know if it’s just hype or if we’ll see a needed reform of the penal code,” says Mr. Maldonado. “We need alternatives to incarceration for crimes of negligence and less serious crimes.”
Ms. Vial agrees, but says those fighting for prison reform ultimately come up against tough-on-crime rhetoric. “The government doesn’t want to raise any questions about its public safety policies,” she says. “It’s not just an issue of resources. Not just about building more prisons or improving the ones that exist.
We also need to rationalize how we fill them. If there isn’t a policy making it possible to respond to minor crimes with alternatives to prison, it will be hard to have results.”
Even if the government does take steps, she says, it is a long road ahead. “It’s too big a ship to turn around quickly. … It can’t be solved all at once."