What are the Signs a Latin American Prison Is Working or Not?

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As part of his work in human rights, transitional justice and prison reform, Michael Reed has been inside dozens of prisons across the Americas. Reed, a dual US-Colombian citizen, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies. He spoke to InSight Crime about his experiences with these parallel ecosystems.*

InSight Crime (IC): Tell me about the first time you went into a prison in Latin America.

Michael Reed (MR): I first started visiting prisons back in 1995 in Venezuela, when I was a human rights monitor to the conditions of persons deprived of liberty. This was part of a program to prevent torture [organized] by a couple of national and international [non-governmental organizations], and we just conducted a series of visits to make people aware of the conditions of detention … I was scared shitless.

IC: Was it all just a blur, just “I need to get out of here?”

MR: No, I was curious. Before going into a prison, I was a rehab therapist at a private holding facility for juvenile detainees. This was a private facility in Texas that actually administered programs for both private clients [which were few] but also took on clients from juvenile justice systems that didn’t have holding facilities, such as Washington, DC. So I’d already been involved in lockdown facilities with individuals that are menacing or threatening.

I suppose what was very surprising was the overcrowding. I walked into a prison where the smells attack you immediately, where you wonder where the bars are. I just walked into a very crowded city, it’s dark in there, and you very quickly realized that you are on your own.

IC: But you’re not on your own, the prisoners literally control your safety.

MR: This was during the 1990s, so there were a lot of businesses inside the prisons. You had a lot of people selling coffee or frying stuff. First of all, the authorities tell you how dangerous it is and you have to sign your life away.

And then you understand that the first layer of protection comes from presenting yourself to whoever is in control, or at least visibly in control. I think generally people who are in control are never visible. The prisons are so well-structured. In Colombia and Chile, for example, they know if somebody who’s not from the prison is walking into the prison. They actually know if somebody who’s not from the patio is walking into the patio, right? [Author’s Note: Latin American prisons have large, open wings called patios where prisoners are generally able to operate during the day.]

IC: When you walk into a prison, what signs do you look for as to whether a prison is working or not?

MR: Chaos is everywhere. If it’s an overcrowded facility, it can be difficult to get a sense, but you will get it. There are typical things. Take La Modelo [a well-known prison in Bogotá, Colombia], patios generally were constructed for 300 to 350 people. However, they’re housing between 1,200 to 1,800 persons at any one moment. You start thinking about what that means, about who is able to organize overcrowding. For example, if you see a group of 20 kids playing football, they’re taking up space that others could comfortably take but they’re playing football. You know that those 20 kids didn’t say, “Get out of my way, I’m going to play football.” Somebody is controlling that.

The other thing that is important is where certain drugs are being smoked. Smoking is uncomfortable for some individuals. Generally, people who are addicts are very much under control and not allowed to wander around. Controlling them is very important as they can do stupid things. So whoever is controlling the prison [again that won’t be the authorities, it’ll be the prisoners] will be very aware of who is not controlling themselves.

SEE ALSO: The Prison Dilemma in the Americas

Then noises are really important. Little shouts and yells are all codes. If you spend enough time in one prison, you’ll start figuring out what those codes are and how certain whistles come in and out. The way people get selected for their particular jobs has a lot to do with how much they can shout and yell. All those are really good and important signs.

Cleanliness is also a good indicator. There are things that you and I don’t think about, such as the management of poorly working bathrooms. That is a really major issue. Visitors might say, “Oh, those people live like animals.” I would like to see a group of very well-educated individuals try to figure out how to keep five bathrooms working to tend to the needs of 1,500 people. I’ve seen that happen, and that is magical government. It’s also based on fear but administering — and I hate to get graphic, but this is really what overcrowding does — urine and bowel movements is no small task when you have five bathrooms for 1,000 individuals. Those things are really crucial. Access to water, places to hang up clothing and being able to wash clothing is absolutely crucial.

IC: What was your worst experience?

MR: The worst one was probably in El Salvador. I walked in with a colleague and we were immediately taken by different groups to different places. I lost track of who I was with, I was completely isolated, nobody would talk to me until I was taken to a separate room where the big palabra [gang leader] appeared. It was fine in the end but there had clearly been an instruction. “OK, let them in, but after that, you need to figure out who these people are and why they’re here, and then I will present myself to them.”

In other places, where you understand the relationship between the authority and the prisoners doing the organizing, a prison guard will introduce you to your chaperone. If you were a neophyte to this, you’d wonder where the guard was going.

In Honduras, we had a situation where the guards walked in with long-range rifles inside the prison. This is just something you don’t do, you don’t enter with this type of weapon unless you get it inside. When we got about halfway through the prison, the sergeant told us this was as far as they would go. They didn’t turn back, they started walking backwards. They just left us in the middle of the prison, alone, and there was nobody to be found. We wondered what to do now. We walked down the path until we met somebody and saw a different type of order.

For me, the amount of order that they are able to produce is just stunning. I suppose it’s due to the coercive effect violence and the threat of violence can have. These are not exercises of solidarity, it’s largely based on fear, but this discipline can work well.

IC: Our investigations around the region have found that regulating violence is a core part of prison life. The emergence and strength of prison gangs are due to their ability to regulate violence, particularly sexual violence. What is your sense of that in a Latin American context?

MR: Sexual assault and rape is without a doubt a symbolic act that everybody fears. And that is used very powerfully. This is an issue when newcomers walk in for what they call “the pageant.” Again, all these words are very symbolic in that sense. They get sexual harassment, name-calling, that threat of “you are going to be mine.” Delicate boys are immediately labeled “porcelain.” It is very much present. I just would say that I have not seen it as much as I see it in the United States, which doesn’t mean that it is not there.

My sense is that sex in prison is something that has been understudied and that, academically, we do not know about. I think there’s a lot of stuff that happens in the sexual life of both men and women who are imprisoned that we don’t know about and that doesn’t get talked about — in the simplistic way of “what happens in prison stays in prison.”

I’ve spoken to prisoners in Latin America for a very long time about homosexuality and what constitutes homosexual behavior or not. That gets very much accommodated to whoever is in power and in control. For anybody outside, this would be seen as homosexual behavior. But it has so many sexist overtones that get interpreted in very different ways.

I’m not sure to what extent [rape] is a driving factor but sexual integrity, physical integrity and protection from sexual assault are relevant. I think that it’s also about staying alive. It might be getting raped but it’s also about disappearing, getting beat and dying.

In the 1990s, there were very evident cases of torture. At La Modelo [in Bogotá, Colombia], anybody who was getting punished would be thrown in between the pabellones [the prison wings]. There were dark holes where they would fill up these huge canteens with water and they would have people step into the water for hours. That was a type of torture of which many of them were really afraid.

IC: Certain criminal groups control violence inside prisons and then use that power to often expand outward beyond the prison. What did you see in this regard going back to the 1990s when you started visiting these places? Were such expressions visible or manifest in any way?

MR: Sure, in Colombia, again. What has changed is technology, for example. At the time, to be able to call, you had to control the landlines. By the 1990s, we were playing around with satellite phones but having a satellite phone wasn’t as easy as having a cell phone, right?

Those manifestations were there, being able to control the outside world from prison certainly happened. But today’s extortion rackets get set up a little bit easier simply because technology is easier to use and more accessible.

For example, kidnapping and extortion rings were present in the 1990s as they are now. But they now take place a lot more, as it’s a lot easier to construct an extortion racket than it was before.

We have also seen a progressive increase of the prison population. In the 1950s and 1960s, typical jails in Latin America were meant to hold roughly 1,500 prisoners at full capacity. By the 1990s, those prisons often had around 3,000 people inside of them. They were also close to cities or within the city itself, which changes things.

Today, those structures are still up. They are decrepit. And in addition to prisoners and guards who go in and out, some have stayed and are still there. That means people start adapting to those structures and now, in 2020, prisons like La Modelo in Bogotá, Bellavista in Medellín, Villahermosa in Cali, can easily house 5,000 prisoners on any given day.

IC: What are the best practices in terms of facing down both prison gangs which are growing stronger and then mitigating their influence? What have you found works in that regard?

MR: That is really, really tough. The one thing that you can’t undo is what has already happened. There is a memory, a custom, a culture and a practice that gets passed on. It’s very difficult to say, “we’re going to start doing things well from now on.” There’s a lot of oral history [about gangs and prisons], both true and false, that gets passed on from generation to generation. A lot of these new gangsters have been through the juvenile justice system and go to prison at 18 years old. They have no sense of what happened in the 1990s. But they know a lot of lies and stories.

We need to be really careful with that. False stories are as important as understanding what really went on. I hate to put it in those terms but a prison is a place of word of mouth. A prison is a place of myth. A prison has a lot of lying. It is really hard to confront and to change those practices.

I would actually try to go at it structurally. I would try to change the atmosphere in which one operates. There is very little that can be done in a decrepit prison that has a lot of spaces that have been manipulated where you can hide things or hide people.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

If we are condemned to continue holding people in the type of facilities that we have right now, there is nothing humanly possible to change that. Any dialogue will very quickly turn into a negotiation. And that negotiation will very quickly be a show of power, and the show of power will not be limited to life within the prison walls, it will very quickly be expressed outside.

IC: What are the commonalities of well-run prisons? What do they share in common?

MR: They are well-staffed. Well-staffed means sufficient staff, and well-selected staff. Then, small populations and a proper budget to do things so life [for prisoners] isn’t just about doing time.

But that cannot be done in an overcrowded facility, that cannot be done in a facility where violence and control are completely on the side of the prisoners. So again, the starting ground is a structural one.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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