Latin America’s prison system is in crisis. Human Rights Watch has called the Latin American penitentiary system “underfunded, overcrowded and often controlled by criminals inside their walls.” In March 2012, a prison fire killed over 350 inmates in Honduras. The same week, a series of prison riots in three Mexican penitentiaries resulted in 48 fatalities. Later in the year, images of black smoke and tanks moving through the streets of Caracas after a prison riot circled the world.
These tragedies have drawn renewed interest to the growing crisis facing the region’s prison system. Within the context of Central America, the Sistema de Integracion Centroamericano (Central American Integration System—SICA) has listed the improvement, expansion and modernization of the region’s prison system as a strategic objective of the Central American Security Strategy. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has already committed funds to update a diagnostic document detailing the state of the region’s penitentiary system.
El Salvador is no exception to the hemispheric trend of prison violence and overcrowding. Since the two main rival gangs announced a truce in March 2012, El Salvador has increased its awareness of the conditions and challenges that the penitentiary system faces. In June 2012, El Salvador’s Dirección de Centros Penales (Directorate of the Penitentiary System) confirmed that the prison system was operating at 317 percent of its capacity.
Of all inmates within the prison system, approximately 27 percent haven’t been convicted. Almost all expert organizations that work on penal system reform agree that the overuse and abuse of preventive prison by judges, as well as the underuse of conditional parole, may be contributing to prison overpopulation in the region. Although the penitentiary system is an integral and important part of the criminal justice system, improving prison conditions and advocating for reform tends to lag on the list of priorities for governments, contributing to the current crisis.
Penal system reform should be addressed in a serious and systematic manner; without it, all efforts and resources being spent on improving El Salvador’s judicial system, law enforcement, institutions, and the rule of law will have little effect.
Improving the attorney general’s investigative capacities, providing training for judges, developing effective crime prevention programs, and better equipping police officers are important and necessary steps, but they will have marginal effect in the long run if convicted felons aren’t properly rehabilitated and eventually reinserted into society. El Salvador’s fiscal situation calls for a heightened prioritization of programs that improve the prison system and rehabilitate former prisoners. Doing so is an intrinsic part of developing effective citizen security policies.
El Salvador can’t afford to leave the penitentiary system at the bottom of its list of priorities. It’s a matter of rule of law.