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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 13:55 GMT
Latin America: Crisis behind bars
Many prisons have up to four times more inmates than they can hold
Worsening living conditions in Latin American prisons amount to a regional human rights crisis, international organisations say.

There are more than 590,000 people in Latin American jails, according to the UN.

Many detention centres are overcrowded, and some have no electricity or running water. There has also been a rising number of riots, hunger strikes and fires.

Joanne Mariner, deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, told the BBC that many prisons in the region have currently two to four times more inmates than they can hold.

This overcrowding is often one of the reasons behind violence in Latin American jails, according to Mark Unger, who has been studying the penitentiary crisis.

Violence inside prisons can also be traced to the power and influence enjoyed by organised crime gangs in the system. Drugs are frequently seen in prisons, along with guns, knives and other weapons.

'Slow justice'

Human rights organisations report that an important proportion of the jail population in Latin America has yet to be sentenced.

Oct 2005 - 32 inmates die in a fire during an uprising in Argentina
Feb 2005 - five inmates die in a gang fight in Peru
Aug 2004 - 31 inmates killed in clashes in El Salvador
May 2004 - 34 prisoners die in a riot in Brazil
May 2004 - 103 inmates killed in a riot in Honduras
Apr 2003 - 69 people die in clashes in Honduras
Sept 2002 - 28 inmates die in a fire and a riot in Dominican Republic

In some countries the judicial system is so slow that up to 70% of inmates spend several years behind bars before being convicted, according to the UN Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (Ilanud).

Its director, Elias Carranza, admits that the problem is very complex, with situations differing from country to country, that it may be difficult to find a regional solution.

However, he insists that a change in legislation across Latin America is badly needed.

He says that countries should establish alternative sentences such as community services for petty crimes, leaving incarceration only for serious offences. This could ease pressure on jail populations.

But critics argue that such proposal could be difficult to apply in countries with high levels of street crime, where people would like to see a tougher approach to offenders.

Social approach

There are some who believe that the penitentiary crisis has an administrative cause, and criticise the inefficient way in which Latin American states run jails.

An injured gang member
Violence has become frequent in Latin American jails
They say prisons should be privatised in order to attract more investments, and improve and broaden infrastructure.

But Mr Carranza thinks this is a bad idea.

"Experiences in some countries have showed that jails managed by profit-driven companies tended to be more expensive than state-run prisons. They may be not the right solution for cash-strapped countries in Latin America.

"Governments should concentrate on the human development," he says.

Many analysts agree that the prison crisis will not be resolved until the gap between rich and poor is addressed. They say that growing social inequality is fuelling crime in the region.

But there is also no doubt that, on such an approach, Latin American countries have still a long way to go.

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