The Prisons In Crisis Project brings together officials, activists, and specialists working on prison reform in Latin America in order to highlight common problems faced by the region's prison systems and to develop policies to address them.

Enrique Navas presented figures on the extreme overcrowding and delays in Uruguay's prison system. He blamed, among other causes, increases in the length of sentences, neglect of basic needs and international standards, budget cuts, and the termination of auto-financing whereby many prisons were able to invest their own earnings into their own facilities. Thoughout the system, there is a lack of sanitary conditions, medications, and medical personal. Despite these conditions, at the policy level there are huge budget shortfalls, cuts of staff trained in in rehabilitation and treatment, and lack of either a treatment model or a coherent government penitentiary policy. To resolve these problems, he recommended construction of new penitentiary centers, expansion of existing facilities, assessments by international organizations, increase in the number and quality of personnel, budget credits, an ability of prisoners to use the profits of their own work, better coordiantion with the Health Ministry, and creation of a Penal Area in the General Hospital with trained personnel.

Julita Lemgruber discussed the severe levels of violence and abuse in Brazil's prisons, whose population has more than doubled between 1995 and 2003. The country's federal system, in which each state has autonomy over its penal system, makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the country as a whole. But several trends are clear – particularly overcrowding. A thousand new prisoners enter the system every month just in the state of São Paulo, for example, while in many states over half of detainees are held in police lock-ups. As other people have pointed out, this increase in incarceration has not led to any corresponding decrease in crime – in fact, crime in Brazil has only continued to mount. Although most states have a prison agency, most have not created manuals for basic prison regulation, do not adequately train prison personnel, or provide adequate health and medical services to detainees. However, the creation of ombudsman, alternatives to incarceration, and "open" or "semi-open" prisons is helping improve conditions in some states.

José Gustavo Zelaya presented extensive findings on the situation in Honduras's prisons. He said that the faciltiies are 32% over official capacity, rarely meeting minimum standards of hygiene and other basic needs. Spending per prisoner on food each day amounts to just 44 cents. He stressed above all the extreme level of violence in most prisons, with 258 deaths reported in 2004 alone. Citing the new "anti-gang" law of 2003 that imprisons members of gangs, he said that most violence and abuse is directed against youth detainees. Emphasizing that 53% of Hondurans livve in extreme poverty, he pointed out that most prisoners have low levels of education and high levels of unemployment. He says that the money spent per prisoner amount to just $2.43 per days and that the number of deaths in prisons have skyrocketed – most notably in massacres over the past two years of over 200 youth gang members. He also citied the government's "zero tolerance" criminal policies as a cause of the country's prison crisis.

Allen Beck presented a sobrering report on the incarceration levels in the United States, which have soared over the last 25 years and increased by over 500,000 inmates since 1995. The lifetime likelihood of going to prison more than tripled between 1974 and 2001. The main causes for increased imprisonment at the state level are tougher sentences – particular for violent offenses and drug violations. There were 500,000 drug offenders in prison and jail in 2002, up from 380,000 in 1995. There was also an increase in the number of parole violators being returned to prison; in 2003, approximately 200,000 parolees and 350,000 probationers failed and were incarcerated. There has also been a growth in the population of jails, which Back said was due to increasing use of jails for housing by other correctional authorities, the rising number and longer stays of pre-trail detainees, and growth in the number of community release violators. Beck said that except for the Federal system, increases in capacity have outpaced population growth. Although prison have high levels of mental illness, drug dependency, and an HIV/AIDS rate at least 3 ½ times higher in the civilian population, Beck pointed out that the number of deaths, injuries, and other violent episodes have all dropped since the mid 1990s. But he also emphasized that the societal sector most likely to be imprisoned are African-American men, with fully one third of those born in 2001 expected to serve time in prison.

Marcelo Bergman presented his analysis of the penal system of Mexico, based on a survey of prisoners and penitentiary personnel of three Mexican states. He said that an increase in the length of prison sentences has led to an explosion in prison population that has far outpaced the slow increase in infrastructure. With this jump in population, he reported, the already precarious state of rehabilitaion and education programs has worsened, corruption has increased, resources for prisoners have decreased, and control of prisons is more and more in the hands of gangs. Although budgets do not cover basic needs, Bergman emphasized, the problem is not a lack of monies but of administration and effective control. The lack of institutional coordination, the increase in sentences for minor crimes, and inadequate planning have made Mexican prisons into a "space of punishment" for the poor and marginalized. The dissuasive effect of incarceration is limited, he said, since those who end up in prison are not the most dangerous criminals, but those unable to corrupt the authorities or afford an adequate legal defesne. But in a social atmosphere of increasing insecurity there is very little political will to reverse this sitaution.

Background information for the Prisons in Crisis Project:

The "Prisons in Crisis" project is a response to inhuman prison conditions and ineffective penal policies throughout Latin America. With record levels of overcrowding, violence, killings, and due process violations, prisons now constitute one of the Latin America's worst human rights abuses – all under the 24-hour watch of the state. But such conditions have been downplayed by governments and widely portrayed as a price in the fight against record levels of crime. Even massacres of hundreds of detainees and facilities at four times official capacity do not budge state policy, neglect, and complicity. With its working group of governments officials, rights activists, and academic specialists from eight countries, this project aims to reverse this lack of attention and action by highlighting the extent of this crisis throughout the hemisphere and developing a comprehensive international response. It will do so through three stages. The first is to report on the state of national penal systems, since even basic information – such as the number of prisoners and how many have not been tried – is unreliable. The group is documenting the levels of overcrowding, violence, abuses by guards, torture, corruption, discrimination, organized crime, unsanitary conditions, disease, access to medicines, and access to legal help, as well as the quantity and quality of work and rehabilitation programs, family visits, protection of women prisoners, and separation of prisoners by age and crime.

The second objective is to develop policies that address these conditions. The group is assessing and developing proposals for alternatives to imprisonment, changes in penal procedures, formation of separate penitentiary agencies, expansion of open prisons, more tranparent financial accounting, stronger public defense and accountability agencies, alternatives to trial such as plea bargaining and probation, standardized decentralization, and training programs for guards and administrators.

To realize these two goals, each working group member has written a report describing prison conditions and outlining policy recommendations for their own countries. These reports were presented at a public presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on February 15, which was sponsored by the Center's Latin America Program. Based on these reports, the project's third objective is to develop particular projects in cooperation with international organizations. During its three days of discussion, from February 14 to 16, the group proposed pilot projects to develop information systems, identify ways to improve alternatives to incarceration, document conditions in police lock-ups, expand anti-violence training, and help governments form or strengthen specialized penitentiary agencies. The Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, and many non-governmental organizations that attended the February 15 panel expressed interest in this work. The panel was also featured on the Voice of America television program, "Foro Interamericano."

The current members of the project's working group are Enrique Navas, head of Uruguay's prison system; Julita Lemgruber, Director of the Center of the Studies of Segurity and Citzienship and former Director of the Prison System in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro; Ximena Sierralta of Peru's Interior Ministry and National Penitentiary Institute; José Gustavo Zelaya, Coordinator of the Legal Aid Program of Casa Alianza in Honduras who investigates treatment of imprisoned youth; Marcelo Bergman of the Centro de Investigación and Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City; Pablo Salinas, a human rights lawyer in Mendoza, Argentina who has won legal actions on conditions in the province's prisons; Ana María San Juan, director of the Center for Peace at the Central University of Venezuela; and Juan Ramón Quintana, director of the watchdog institute Policia y Democracia in Bolivia. In its next stages, the group will add officials and specialists from other Latin American countries.

For more information about the project, contact Mark Ungar at