Visiting a prison does not leave you feeling indifferent. After exhaustive security checks, you find yourself amid a sea of personal stories – many of them tragic – and the statistics begin to take on a human face. Life in prison is much more difficult than we imagine: discipline, strict schedules, cells shared with up to 20 strangers and views of the horizon that end with a security fence.
Confirming the dreadful situation of most Latin American prisons is nothing new. Overcrowding and the lack of health strategies are, along with corruption and the absence of effective reinsertion plans, some of the challenges faced by authorities across the region.
In Peru, for example, the prison occupancy rate is 215%, above Brazil’s 168% or Chile’s 146%. Longer sentences and the reduction in prison benefits for some crimes have doubled the prison population since 2005, with little change in prison capacity.
In addition, one of every three inmates entering prison does so for a second time, which suggests that reinsertion activities have considerable room for improvement.
As part of a crime prevention strategy, the main objective of ordering a prison sentence is to manage the return to the community of individuals who have committed a crime, in an effort to prevent repeat violations and thus to contribute to guaranteeing public safety. To this end, the focus should be on what is occurring in our prisons, even more so in countries with high crime rates.
With respect to health in prisons, much remains to be done. In 2013, 166 inmates died in Peruvian prisons. One in three of those deaths was caused by tuberculosis or respiratory infections. Health officials should include the inmate population in their global health strategies and take into account in their analyses the contagion flows between those inside and outside of a prison, mainly through family visits.
The pilot project “Improving Employability in a Cusco Prison,” funded by a World Bank grant, had the objective of putting what is happening in prisons on the agenda, from a social inclusion and crime prevention perspective.
This project, which is the World Bank’s first prison initiative in Latin America, trained 85 young inmates at Quencoro Penitentiary in Cusco and promoted private sector participation in the inmate re-socialization process. Taking this initiative to scale in the country’s 68 prisons –many of which already have this type of school-workshop – would be a positive next step.
At Quencoro, inmates learn a trade and work to help their families and to have a better future. Providing opportunities to incarcerated individuals can have a significant impact on their families, which are frequently extremely vulnerable and stigmatized. Moreover, in many cases, the main source of family income comes from the work the inmates perform in prison.
Through its National Penitentiary Institute (INPE), Peru has recently embarked on an effort to reduce overcrowding and improve prison conditions. The idea is to prevent some of their citizens from becoming trapped in a cycle of failed social integration and to help ensure a more inclusive, safer society. The time has come to address the situation in prisons.