Overcrowding Sows the Seeds of Violence in Mexico Prisons

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A new NGO report gives a breakdown of the causes of overcrowding in Mexico’s prisons, offering insight into why the Mexican penal system has become a “time bomb” primed to explode in violence. 

Mexico Evalua collated statistics from each of the country’s federal, state and municipal prisons into a study [pdf] that examines the nature of Mexico’s prison population and the conditions inside the prisons with the goal of determining the capacity of these facilities to serve their constitutionally stated purpose as centers of rehabilitation.

Over half of the country’s prisons are overcrowded, standing at 124 percent capacity at a national level with more than 242,000 prisoners in spaces designed for 195,000. The states with the most overpopulated prisons are Nayarit, at 188.6 percent capacity, the Federal District at 184.7 percent, and Jalisco at 176.1 percent. Two high capacity prisons in the Federal District have over 200 percent occupancy rates.

These numbers are fed in part by the high percentage of prisoners — 58.8 percent — serving a sentence of under three years, says the study, which claims, “This number also suggests that the capacity of the state for criminal prosecution is low and is limited to the weakest links in the criminal chain.” The vast majority — 193,194 — of the country’s prisoners are serving time for common, rather than federal crimes, with 72,000 of these in for robbery.

A second factor in overpopulation is the overuse of preventive detention, with 41.3 percent of prisoners in jail without a sentence. Though this percentage has remained fairly stable over the past several years, the numbers have more than doubled since the mid-1990s. Mexico ranks 8th highest on a list that ranks 66 countries according to the number of prisoners compared to sentences, with 1.54 people in prison for every sentence issued.

The issue is particulary prevalent in the states of Baja California Sur, Durango, Oaxaca and Quintana Roo, where over 60 percent of prisoners are being held in preventive detention.

The national percentage is much higher for federal crimes, with prisoners in preventive detention representing over half the prison population in 24 states. The most extreme case is Tabasco, where 94.5 percent of all prisoners accused of federal crimes have not been sentenced.

The overcrowded prisons are not served by a correspondingly high number of prison workers: at a national level, there are five prisoners for every prison guard, but this number is much higher in states like Quintana Roo, with nearly 19 prisoners per guard, and Tabasco, with nearly 14.

InSight Crime Analysis

The study notes that “In a context of growing insecurity and violence… hard-handed policies become attractive and popular… jail emerges as the logical and most immediate solution.” However, the experience of many Latin American countries has shown that this is in the long term hardline policies relying on imprisoning ever more people can create more problems than it resolves.

The extreme overcrowding in Mexico’s prisons has helped turn them into “time bombs,” which are under the control of certain powerful prisoners instead of the state, says the study. The ungovernable nature of the prisons is reflected in the 269 recorded clashes that occurred between 2010 and May 2013, which resulted in the deaths of 568 prisoners. The study also notes that prisoners’ perceptions of insecurity have increased.

While Mexico’s numbers are disturbing, they are still nowhere near as high as in Venezuela, where jails are running at over 290 percent capacity and 591 prisoners died in 2012 alone. Nor do conditions appear to be as bad as in El Salvador, where prisons are at nearly 300 percent capacity and gangs have near complete control.

Nonetheless, Mexico’s prisons display worrisome tendencies. A 2011 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) found that 60 percent of the country’s prisons were controlled by criminal groups, and some of the most violent prison episodes in recent years have allegedly been caused by the actions of major drug cartels. A February 2012 massacre of 44 prisoners from the Gulf Cartel and subsequent mass prison break in Nuevo Leon has been attributed to the Zetas, as was the escape of 130 prisoners in Coahuila in September that year.

The study states: “Mexican authorities have taken the number of arrests, remittances and incarcerations as an indicator of the effectiveness of the system.” However, as InSight Crime has noted, arrests do not necessarily mean much. Police quotas in Mexico do not differentiate between the value of the target, meaning many police go after low-level criminals rather than high-profile targets in order to reach their quotas, helping to explain the high number of prisoners serving small prison sentences. These small time criminals, in turn, may easily become connected with major criminal networks through their time in prison.

The failure of Mexico’s prisons to offer a rehabilitative or preventive role is also reflected in the fact that, at a national level, 15.5 percent of prisoners commit a crime once out of prison, although in the worst affected area, Federal District, the recidivism rate is over twice as high.

Though Mexico’s prisons have not reached the extremes seen in the notoriously out of control prisons in Venezuela and El Salvador, the growing prison population coupled with a low number of staff, have help to create the same kind of potentially explosive conditions, which will only deteriorate if left unaddressed. 

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