How to deal with the increasing prison population in Latin America?

Currently, around 11.5 million people are deprived of their liberty around the world. This is according to the latest edition of the World Prison Population List (WPPL), which was published by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) in 2021. In Brazil there are 800,000 prisoners – almost 7% of the world’s prison population – and in Mexico there are more than 220,000. Third place in the region is occupied by Argentina, with nearly 110,000 prisoners, followed by Colombia, with 98,000, and Peru, with 88,000.

According to the report, the tendency has been increasing since 2000. The prison population in the Americas, excluding the United States, whose prison population is by far the largest, has increased 138% since 2000 and has risen 77% in Central America and 200% in South America.

The United Nations reports that the global rate is 143 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In that order, El Salvador and Cuba have the highest rates in the region with 564 and 510 prisoners per 100 inhabitants, respectively.

How to deal with rising prison population rates in Latin America?

Despite this reality, the recommendations of the “experts” remain the same. The weakness of the proposed alternatives and of the security and penitentiary policy actions is the lack of empirical evidence for their arguments. Therefore, more methodological training and “creativity” is needed to overcome the discussion on how to address security problems and prison crises in Latin America, beyond the discomfort, due to the prison infrastructure, and the recommendation to build more prisons.

Without strategy or planning, the new centers will be filled without exception. On the other hand, the idea of reintegration must overcome its limitations and failures to build a new reality based on concrete actions that transcend discourse.

Some measures could be to increase the use of non-custodial measures at all stages of the criminal justice process, in order to eliminate their nexus with the system during existing criminal justice interventions. As an example of good practices in this regard, during 2022, in Mexico, the Libertades program, for humanitarian causes, resulted in more than 3,000 early releases and amnesties to inmates for non-serious crimes, who could not afford a defense and who were in vulnerable conditions.

Another measure could be the optimization of budgets and infrastructure costs of prison facilities. This should be done without compromising security and custody levels, but by prioritizing attention to the prisoners’ living conditions and the protection and effective exercise of the rights of inmates, staff, and visitors.

In addition, security strategies could be implemented based on transparency and the institutionalization of norms, protocols, procedures, and practices, which in turn allow for the fulfillment of objectives and supervision, according to performance indicators that can be evaluated and are part of a continuous process. Staff should also be increased and training programs should be developed to meet and address the needs to ensure governance and security in prisons, as well as the use of different interventions for reintegration.

Productive Prison projects are multiplying in Latin America as a successful alternative intervention during penal execution. There are success stories in Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico, among others. These initiatives stand out for the coordination and “co-responsibility” between the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and the public administration. Lastly, intervention options should be incorporated that are based on differentiated approaches for the care and protection of prisoners’ human rights.

In the preface to his work The Future of Imprisonment (1978), Norval Morris establishes a sharp critique of the prison crisis, stating that in the past two centuries it has failed in its purpose in relation to rehabilitation, today known as reinsertion. “Prisons have few friends; discontent in them is widespread. They are often the scene of brutality, violence and racial conflict”.

In this regard, it would be worthwhile to propose a modern prison reform as an alternative to the old prison model. A scheme that finally meets the expectation of bringing legality to prison, beyond the worn-out concept of reinsertion, which guarantees a justice system based on the right to the inclusion of people who, as a result of decades of exclusion and inequality, have experienced the vulnerability of their rights in freedom and who currently become armies of “the other” prisoners, maintaining and expressing their rejection in different ways.

Reform is needed to promote the protection of human rights and safeguard the principle of human dignity of inmates within the criminal justice system, but above all outside this system. This is not just an aspiration, but a hope for Latin American nations, which are facing challenges and changes that require the work and cooperation of all those who are involved in it.

Consequently, if not the end of the crossroads, we hope for the capacity, strength, and, especially, the courage and hope to continue working on a justice system that benefits coexistence and peacebuilding.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues  

Our Newsletter