Pre-Trial Detention Brews Crisis in LatAm Prisons

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Recent prison disasters — a deadly fire in Honduras and a massacre in Mexico — point to the misuse of pre-trial detention in those countries’ justice systems, stuffing penal facilities with people who haven’t been charged with a crime.

When more than 360 inmates died in a prison fire in Honduras, the problem of inhumane prison conditions across Latin America came sharply into focus. The issue was compounded when, less than a week later, 44 members of the Gulf Cartel were killed by the Zetas in a Mexican penitentiary before a staged breakout.

Both prisons were severely overcrowded, and filled with inmates who had not yet been convicted or charged. The Mexican prison saw an additional 1,500 inmates enter last year, putting it at 180 percent capacity. In Honduras, two-thirds of the inmate population were being held without a charge, or were awaiting trial. The prison, designed to hold 400 inmates, housed twice that number.

Both Mexico and Honduras have employed pre-trial detention as a core part of the national strategy against organized crime. In a functioning justice system, only those deemed to be high-risk or likely to flee the country are held in prison before trial. Instead, in these countries, suspected first-offense muggers and drug dealers are locked up alongside more serious offenders, with no chance of bail.

Not only has this filled prisons beyond capacity, but it has helped to foster corruption among prison guards, who are unable to exert control over the huge inmate population. The lack of a strong government penal authority further strengthens the networks of corruption and bribery found within the system. As seen with the Mexico massacre, in which prison guards were involved in planning and staging an elaborate break-out for the Zetas, the corruption can reach the point that prison staff are bribed into favoring one criminal organization over another.

Behind the excessive use of pre-trial detention in countries like Honduras and Mexico is the perception that by locking up more people, the state must be improving security. Instead, evidence shows that such a tactic may only serve to strengthen organized crime. For small-time offenders jailed for relatively minor crimes like drug possesion, prisons are the perfect place to plug into larger criminal networks. And as Human Rights Watch observed in a 2006 report, in Mexico the overcrowded prison system also means that corrupt penal authorities have more incentive to grant early release to prisoners who can bribe their way out, in order to open up more space for new inmates. The convicts able to secure an early release are often those hardened criminals most deeply involved in “high-risk” crime, the report says.

The other flawed perception behind pre-trial detention is that it improves security by keeping suspected offenders off the streets, so that they have no opportunity to commit another crime or to escape while awaiting trial. Locking up suspects before they have been convicted should be a measure of last resort. By automatically jailing anyone suspected of a crime, Mexico and Honduras are draining credibility from the entire criminal justice system. Judges need other measures, like a functioning bail system, in order to ensure that suspects will show up for trial.

As highlighted in a study by Open Society Foundations (InSight Crime’s primary sponsor) the total cost of pre-trial detentions to Mexican society may amount to as much as $14.8 million. The number is based on the estimated costs to the state, responsible for supporting a huge prison population, and the costs endured by families, who may lose their primary breadwinner. It shouldn’t take another prison disaster to highlight the fact that the ultimate costs of pre-trial detention far outweigh the perceived benefits.

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