SAN SALVADOR: Central America’s relentless struggle with gangs and street crime has created a worrying consequence: prisons so overcrowded they serve more as schools for felons than institutions for rehabilitation, according to experts.
Together, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama have 103,993 convicts in around a hundred penitentiaries — whose combined capacity is meant to be 48,218.
Prison overpopulation in each facility ranges from 22 percent to 246 percent.
“The overcrowding highlights the failure of the structure of the justice system in its entirety,” said Laura Andrade, a Salvadoran expert on prison issues.
Several studies show that the governments in the region have opted for a populist policy that simply scoops up massive amounts of criminals and locks them away as an answer to public fears in some of the world’s most dangerous countries.
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador constitute what is known as the “Northern Triangle” of Central America: gang-ridden nations whose murder rates are among the highest on the planet outside of actual war zones.
But experts question the strategy, which they say merely creates fertile centers for criminal learning.
“The citizen perception of imprisonment as a solution to security problems has impeded progress in reforms to reduce the inmate population, adopt alternative measures, and promote social reinsertion,” the UN Development Program said in a 2013 report.
Hotbeds of violence
In recent years, Central American governments have thrown themselves behind renovating prisons or building new ones. The allocated budgets are focused much more on improving penitentiary employees’ salaries and inmates’ food than on rehabilitation schemes.
For the UNDP, the prisons have become hotbeds of violence where human rights violations, criminal networks and recidivism abound.
In a heightened crackdown on gangs this year, El Salvador in March imposed strict measures to prevent many of the 16,197 gang members locked up — 46 percent of the country’s prison population — communicating with the outside world in a bid to curb their criminal activities.
Yet there are some signs the region is realizing the need for a change in direction.
“In the current conditions of overcrowding, the inhuman living conditions and the human rights violations experienced by most of the inmate population, prison is doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to, which is to resocialize,” said a recent study of El Salvador’s prison system carried out by the University of Central America.
With 34,938 inmates in 19 penitentiaries, El Salvador has the worst rate of prison overcrowding in the region, at 246 percent.
It is followed by Guatemala at 204 percent.
The Central American country with the lowest level of overcrowding is Panama, at 22 percent.
Lack of personnel
“It’s urgent that the state develop a new crime-fighting policy that involves the three powers (executive, legislative and judicial), and which require us to take decisions that avoid prison as the sole applicable measure, with a series of alternatives,” Costa Rica’s justice minister, Cecilia Sanchez, told Agence France-Presse.
For her, the “poor penitentiary structure” and the lack of qualified personnel are the main obstacles to working out a real reinsertion program for released prisoners.
In Guatemala, Andrea Barrios, coordinator for an association called Colectivo Artesanas, urged alternatives to prison for lesser crimes, such as home detention or community service.