A recent report indicates that Guatemala’s prisons are at 280 percent over capacity, a problem exacerbated by poor management, which is feeding growing criminality within the penitentiary system, and effectively handing inmates control over many installations.
According to a report published by Guatemala’s National Economic Research Center (CIEN) on August 6, as of June this year, 17,942 people occupied the country’s 6,412 prison spaces, with 49 percent of inmates held in pre-trial detention. This rate of overcrowding — which ranges from three to six prisoners per available space — places Guatemala’s penitentiary system among the ten most overcrowded in the world. The study blames a sharp increase in incarcerations since 2009.
The report also discusses how overcrowding leads to a lack of control over prisoners, thus allowing inmates to commit crimes while incarcerated. According to Public Ministry figures cited in the report, prisoners perpetrate approximately 80 percent of the country’s extortion cases.
Furthermore, it highlights a lack of adequate investment in jails. An analysis of basic infrastructure within the prisons — such as electrical installations and water supply — found that only six percent of the country’s 22 prisons had adequate infrastructure.
The country’s penitentiary system also lacks exact information on the duration of the prison sentences of 40 percent of inmates, the report states.
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Overpopulated prisons are a serious problem in numerous Latin American countries. According to the CIEN report, Central America is one region with especially high levels of prison overcrowding, led by El Salvador (322 percent), and followed by Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Prison overpopulation in the region has been fuelled partly by iron fist security policies and — as demonstrated by the CIEN report — long pre-trial detention periods. This phenomenon has been credited with facilitating crime and gang activity, which is especially apparent in El Salvador, where prisons have become recruitment hubs for the country’s powerful street gangs. Numerous countries in the region have also seen prison overcrowding lead to deadly riots and massacres.
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These issues are exacerbated by official corruption within prisons. Guatemala’s penitentiary system reportedly has a high level of institutional corruption, which has facilitated the development of a prison black market. Officials allegedly profit from inmates, charging over $19,000 for a prison transfer and between $12 and $38 to remove prisoners from solitary confinement.