Court Rules El Salvador Prison Crowding Unconstitutional

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El Salvador’s high court declared conditions in the country’s overcrowded prisons unconstitutional in a ruling with implications for the government’s hard line policies aimed at defeating gangs.

The Supreme Court of Justice in a June 3 ruling  (pdf) said conditions in prisons around the country “violate the fundamental right of personal integrity” of inmates. The court’s press release said that on average, 30 to 40 inmates are housed in a space measuring 10.2 square meters. That averages out to about 0.28 square meters (3 square feet) per person.  

The numbers indicate that El Salvador has the most crowed prisons in the region, followed by Cuba and Panama, according to a report based on data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

The inhumane conditions violate Article 11 of El Salvador’s constitution, which gives inmates the right to dignified detention. The court ordered the construction of new facilities as well as the adaptation of existing prisons to better accommodate inmates.

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The court also insisted that the relevant judges “urgently carry out the work of identifying which prisoners should no longer continue in detention” in an attempt to lessen the burden on the federal prison system.

The ruling ordered the Health Ministry to conduct periodic medical visits in the prison system to evaluate the sanitary and medical needs of the detained population.

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Any revision of El Salvador prison structure could have far reaching implications. The leadership of the two major gangs in the country, Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, have long directed the gangs’ activities from behind bars.

The government had already implemented emergency measures aimed at isolating imprisoned gang leaders from their their rank and file membership in the crowded facilities and in the streets. Officials have also announced plans to release non-violent offenders and to build low-security facilities for other inmates not affiliated with the gangs.

It is unlikely that the emergency measures and an ongoing crackdown on gangs in the streets — which also has been beset by criticism of human rights violations — can achieve the government’s highly optimistic goal of bringing these massive criminal organizations under control within a year.   However, the broader prison reforms mandated by the Supreme Court might be a significant step toward fostering a more sustainable, albeit gradual, solution to El Salvador’s enduring gang problem.

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