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Prison overcrowding in Latin America: A plea for less criminalization?

On the night of February 11, the Topo Chico prison turned into a living inferno. An extremely violent riot broke out in the penal facility in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey and within an hour, a confrontation between two rival prison gangs turned into a bloodbath; the revolt left 49 dead as the prison’s warehouse was set on fire and inmates were mortally stabbed and beaten.

Overcrowding in Topo Chico had placed enemy gangs too close together for comfort, allowing cartels to gain a dangerous amount of control over the facility. Furthermore, not only were the Topo Chico authorities unable to swiftly contain the violent confrontation, but they also proved incapable of promptly identifying the bodies and even miscounted the number of fatal victims, largely because the prison held no consistent records of its inmate population. From its causes to its aftermath, this bloodiest prison revolt in recent Mexican history sheds light on the precarious conditions of Mexican penitentiaries and their appalling mismanagement by the state.

Yet, the atrocious state of prison facilities and the consequences of neglect are not issues strictly confined to Mexico or the Topo Chico prison. A comparable scandal related to prison overpopulation broke out in El Salvador in 2013, after a series of shocking photographs exposed the wretched conditions in which inmates lived in a complex near the capital. The photographs revealed three small cages into which as many as thirty adult men were simultaneously crammed and left for extended periods of time, despite the lack of bathrooms or beds. Although the cages were originally designed as short-term holding cells for recent detainees, they had become the only cells available in the overcrowded system. With the absence of a doctor in the prison complex, the cages were saturated with disease, rendering living conditions insufferable.

On yet another occasion, in 2012, at the prison in Comayagua city in Honduras, a fire started by an inmate rapidly grew out of control due to the prison facilities’ hazardous conditions, resulting in the death of 356 people. Reportedly, authorities that were in possession of the keys to inmates’ cells ran for their lives, leaving the inmates behind. Shockingly, just the number of casualties from the fire exceeded the actual capacity of the prison, which was originally constructed to house 250 people, but was holding over 800 inmates behind bars at the time of the fire. This was the third deadly prison fire just in Honduras within the last decade; the two preceding ones respectively resulted in 61 and 107 victims.

With several of the highest homicide rates in the world, widespread kidnapping, robbery and extortion, as well as an increase in drug-trafficking, Latin American states admittedly have a lot to deal with in the criminal justice domain. As a result, many of them have emphasized arrests over prosecution as a short-term strategy to deal with the crisis of violence. However, such pro-incarceration policies have resulted in a tremendous influx of inmates to local and federal prisons, despite the fact that the number of prisons is far from sufficient to handle the amount of alleged criminals. As of 2012, the 19 penitentiaries of the Honduran state, originally designed to collectively hold 8,000 inmates, were packed with over 24,000 people. As of 2013, over 27,000 inmates in El Salvador overcrowded a system built initially for 8,000.

In hopes of remedying the dire consequences of prison overpopulation, it is crucial to try to look past the horrifying carnage of Topo Chico and similar incidents to ask the question of what Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico share besides the evident issues of prison overcrowding and rampant violence. One answer, which becomes evident upon closer inspection of the cases mentioned earlier, is broken judicial systems. The sluggish pace of judicial proceedings in Latin America makes a bad situation even worse as it leads to a significant percentage of inmates hopelessly waiting for a trial or a formal prosecution while in detention. Furthermore, detentions do not necessarily lead to trials or prosecutions — many inmates are withheld while in the process of receiving a formal sentence.

Another cause is, unsurprisingly, poor drug war policies. A large proportion of inmates are imprisoned due to offenses related to the criminalization of the production and trafficking of drugs. In 2012, 60 percent of inmates in Mexico was detained due to drug-related offenses, mostly possession or transportation of marihuana. By providing unequal access to economic opportunities and welfare, Latin American states have excluded large parts of their populations from the legal means to a productive and sustainable life. Unfortunately, because of this, engaging in this type of criminalized activity is an appealing option for the disenfranchised youth of these nations, since they attain a certain degree of economic stability, a sense of belonging and protection — all the elements that the state has failed to provide.

To make matters worse, in similar manner to the United States, mass incarceration due to policies that criminalize drug-related activities has the largest impact on marginalized communities in Latin American countries. In a recently conducted poll about prison’s populations in Mexico, the data revealed that only 20 percent of the inmates reported to have completed middle school, and that 90 percent of them began working before age 18. But in criminal systems plagued with corruption, an individual accused of a drug-related offense has much less chance of receiving a fair trial — or any trial at all — if he or she belongs to a marginalized community; this individual also lacks the economic means or political power to pay his or her way out of detention or prosecution, in effect contributing to the issue of overcrowded penal facilities.

Regardless of their criminal status, inmates, as all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. However, the current state of overcrowded prisons in Latin America seems to indicate that many states in the region think otherwise. Overpopulated prisons are painful reminders of the need for a profound re-evaluation of judicial systems that keep so many people behind the bars. While the expansion of the prison system seems like a logical response to tackle overpopulation, any viable long-term solution must deconstruct and reform the policies responsible for this overpopulation in the first place.

Photo: Giles Clarke

About the Author

Camila Ruiz Segovia '18 is a world columnist from Mexico City, with an interest in humanitarian crises, social movements and political art. She enjoys late-night conversations, hitchhiking and oil paintings.