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Latin America’s prisons are overcrowded and violent

SecondErta Garcia In her cardigan, she looks like a hiker through the Andean town of Latacunga, 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the Ecuadorian capital Quito. But Ms. Garcia wasn’t here for the country’s spectacular volcanoes. Latacunga is also home to a prison where 27 inmates were killed in riots in 2021. It was here, in a prison run by drug gangs, that her 74-year-old husband was sent to jail after being convicted in absentia of graft. He had cancer but had to sleep on the floor in an overcrowded cell. He was beaten. Three months later, Ms García transferred him to a lower security prison. But by then, the incarceration had taken its toll. “He’s very thin and a lot older,” she said as she went to the prison to get his medical records.

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In the Americas, 376 people are behind bars for every 100,000 inhabitants, more than double that of any other region. Historically, that rate has been pushed up by the United States, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world: 629 per 100,000 people. Other countries are now starting to catch up. In the two decades since 2000, the prison populations of Central and South America have exploded by 77 percent and 200 percent, according to World Prison Brief, a database maintained by Birbeck, University of London.

Prisons in Latin America are barely funded. In Brazil, which has the third largest prison population in the world, inmates in state prisons will spend an average of $4,000 a year in 2021. That’s about one-tenth of what the US average spends. The pandemic has made things worse, increasing overcrowding and violence. Since December 2020, more than 400 Ecuadorians have been killed in gang fights in prisons. Last June, 53 prisoners were killed in a riot in Colombia.

In areas with high crime rates, citizens have long expected their leaders to hold suspects to high standards Mano’s dura mater, or Iron Fist. The most extreme example occurred in El Salvador. In March 2022, President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency after a spike in gang-related killings. Some 100,000 people, or 2 percent of the adult population in El Salvador, are now behind bars. The homicide rate in the country was halved. Mr Buckler’s approval rating stands at 90%, the highest in the region.

But the problem is that prisons in Latin America offer very little rehabilitation. Fewer than half of prisoners have access to work or education, and the programs that exist tend to be infrequent and short-term. Reformists who envisioned prisons as state-sponsored places for re-education were disappointed as prison populations began to soar in the 1990s, said Giane Silvestre of the University of São Paulo. Instead, it seems that “prisons are just places where undesirables are kept”.

Few countries keep records of recidivism, and different methods of measuring recidivism make them difficult to compare. But the available data are dismal. In Brazil, according to a 14-year study published last year of more than 900,000 ex-convicts convicted of drug crimes, violent crimes and theft, one in five returned to prison within a year, Nearly 40 percent were sent back to prison within five years. In the U.S., 45 percent of ex-prisoners return to prison within five years, either for new convictions or parole violations.

Overcrowding means many prisons are little more than cages. World Prison Brief estimates that Brazilian and Bolivian prisons are operating at 147% and 264%, respectively. Prisoners reported not receiving medical treatment. Salvadorans in prison are 99 times more likely to develop tuberculosis than the national average, according to the World Health Organization. Another consequence of overcrowding is often violence.

In some prisons, authorities work in tandem with prisoners. Other prisons are run entirely by inmates, with staff guarding only the perimeter.The most extreme is Venezuela Planes, or kingpin. According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, they control 46% of the prison population, while state authorities control 11% (the rest are under mixed control) non-governmental organizationThis is the result of a policy in the 2010s when Prisons Minister Iris Varela realized that the state alone could not control prison violence.She put the blame on Planeswho built it discothequeswimming pool and zoo.

In Ecuador, the government says more than one-third of prisoners belong to organized crime, with one prison guard for every 62 prisoners (in the US, the ratio ranges from 1:4 to 1:14). Being outnumbered and underpaid, they sometimes join gangs they are supposed to control. In recent years, Ecuador has suffered a wave of murders orchestrated by jailed gang bosses. In the first eight months of 2022, the number of homicides has doubled compared to the same period last year. Researcher Renato Riveira said the gang that hung the bodies from the bridge “was born in prison”.

mexicanization of a region

Some countries are working hard to change. According to the World Prison Briefing, six of the 25 Latin American countries have reduced their prison populations since 2018. Last year, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso announced plans to release 5,000 prisoners and hire more guards.

Some inmates are unhappy with the plans. In November, gangsters in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city, hurled explosives at gas stations, a police station and a hospital, killing five police officers and a civilian, in an apparent response to the gang leader’s transfer to a higher-security prison response. Such violence can make it difficult for society to believe in the value of releasing less dangerous prisoners.

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