Thursday, September 15, 2016

Despite court order, horrific prison overcrowding continues

On June 3 of this year, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court ruled that El Salvador's horribly overcrowded prisons violated the country's constitution and the human rights of incarcerated prisoners.   The court ordered a series of corrective measures be taken.

Three months later, there has been little improvement.   A recent review of the failure of the government to improve the situation revealed:


  • El Salvador's prisons have the capacity to hold 8000 prisoners, but they currently hold 37,000 prisoners, not counting the 5000 held in local police jails.
  • The head of El Salvador's prisions says there has been no significant investment in the prisons in the last 50 years, some of which date back to 1904.
  • Implementing measures to substitute for incarceration might reduce the prison population by only 3000 prisoners.
  • There is no budget to feed prisoners in local police jails. The prisoners depend on family members bringing them food, and if no one brings food they must find someone to share.
  • The overcrowding is forcing the police to become prison guards, a task the PNC says they were not trained for.
  • There is so little room that prisoners take turns sleeping and standing on foot.   Some prisoners must spend their time with arms or legs stuck out of their cells because there is so little space.  Hygiene is almost non-existent.
  • As many as 50% of the prisoners have spent as long as 10 years in these over-crowded conditions.

The conditions of overcrowding are exacerbated by the government's current "exceptional measures" to fight the country's street gangs.   From AFP:
[For the UN Development Program], 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.
In a country with limited governmental resources and a soaring crime problem, improving conditions for prisoners is not a politically popular position.   The country's highest court may have ordered improvements, but the court has no real tools to make it happen.

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