Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Web Exclusive

Infographic: The ‘Disastrous’ State of Latin America’s Prisons

Reading Time: 2 minutesPrisons from Brazil to El Salvador are severely overcrowded, leading to violence and gang activity. Here is AQ’s overview on where the region stands.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

OEA / SMS Arena Ortega (flickr) CC by ND 2.0 May 28, 2012

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Flames and plumes of smoke could be seen rising above the Juiz Plácido de Souza penitentiary in Pernambuco, Brazil on Saturday after a violent inmate rebellion left six dead and at least 11 injured. Local news outlets reported several possible causes for the incident, but severe overcrowding was almost certainly a factor: the prison, built to house 400 prisoners, now holds 1,850.

Human Rights Watch has called the state of prisons in Brazil a “disaster,” citing Pernambuco specifically. But prison overcrowding is not just a problem in Pernambuco or Brazil: Overcrowding is endemic across Latin America, where cramped quarters restrict prisoners’ basic human rights and increase the likelihood of prison breaks, gang activity and violence. 

The results can be fatal. A report from the Venezuelan Prisoner Observatory found that over 300 prisoners had died and nearly 200 were injured in overcrowded jails in 2014. Riots in the Guatemalan Granja Penal Canadá prison – built to hold 600 prisoners but currently housing 3,088 – saw the deaths of 16 prisoners last November. In Colombia’s La Modelo prison, the dismembered body parts of 100 prisoners and prisoner visitors were found earlier this year stuffed into drain pipes beneath the facility.

Some governments have tried to address the issue. In El Salvador, where prisons are among the most overcrowded in the region, the Supreme Court declared prison overpopulation unconstitutional and called for immediate reform. According to a Supreme Court press release, El Salvador’s prisons have room for 8,110 prisoners but currently hold 33,421. In several of the country’s jails, prisoners hang rows of hammocks to create space for the 30 to 40 people jammed into 30 square foot cells; in others, more than 400 inmates live in a space created for just 75.

While data sources report slightly differing levels of overcrowding, all point to a pervasive problem in the region. The chart below, based on data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief, shows where the hemisphere stands on both prison occupancy and incarceration rates per 100,000 citizens.

Tags: Brazil, El Salvador, Prisons
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter