Uruguay Proposes Restructuring Prison System to Focus on Rehabilitation

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Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez has introduced legislation aimed at refocusing the country’s penitentiary system on rehabilitating inmates days after a prison riot drew attention to poor conditions, an approach that runs contrary to prevailing trends in the region.

President Vázquez submitted a bill to Uruguay’s Congress on July 2 proposing that the institution in charge of managing the country’s prisons be decentralized and restructured to better provide psychological, social and educational services for the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The legislation would shift the National Rehabilitation Institute (Instituto Nacional de Rehabilitación – INR) out of the control of the Interior Ministry, putting the agency under the purview of the Education and Culture Ministry.

In addition, two new councils would be created to provide inmates and their family members with platforms for submitting complaints and suggestions to improve prison conditions. The councils would also aim to strengthen social reintegration programs and reduce recidivism rates.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

These changes to the country’s prison system were a central promise of Vázquez’s 2015 reelection campaign, and were agreed to by representatives of all of the country’s main political parties in 2016, El Observador reported. The proposal has been floated by Vázquez’s Broad Front (Frente Amplio) party since at least 2012, following his first presidential term from 2005 to 2010.

The recent introduction of this legislation, which already carries the signatures of the president and the interior, education and economy ministers, comes just days after a riot shook Uruguay’s largest prison. More than 30 inmates took three police officers hostage and demanded improvements to prison conditions, including measures to address a rat infestation and delays in food distribution.

The governing Broad Front party maintains a majority in the country’s congress, making it likely that the bill will pass. If the proposal becomes law, a group of ministers would be appointed to oversee the transition of the National Rehabilitation Institute into a more independent body, which would take control of prison operations in February 2021.

InSight Crime Analysis

Uruguay’s decision to press forward with long-proposed plans to improve the prison system’s ability to adequately house and rehabilitate inmates stands in sharp contrast to the policies being pursued elsewhere in the region.

Repressive security measures, skyrocketing inmate populations, poor facilities and rampant corruption have turned many of Latin America’s prisons into incubators of organized crime rather than centers for rehabilitation.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

Uruguay has struggled in the past with high rates of recidivism, which officials have attempted to address with small-scale initiatives like a 2017 project to provide job opportunities to released prisoners. If the recently introduced legislation is passed and Uruguay’s prisons successfully shift toward a more rehabilitation-centered approach with an emphasis on respecting prisoners’ rights, it could serve as a model for other countries in the region seeking to address deep-seated issues in their penitentiary systems.

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