A hostage situation at Venezuela’s Tocuyito prison ended last month when authorities agreed to transfer hundreds of prisoners to another facility. In an email interview, Chris Birkbeck, a specialist in criminal justice in Latin America at the University of Salford, discussed South America’s prison systems.
WPR: Broadly speaking, what are the major problems facing the prison systems in South America?
Chris Birkbeck: The biggest problem is the lack of control over inmates inside each establishment. Internal, often coercive, control is in the hands of prisoners, in some cases with the tacit recognition of the administration, but it is often contested between groups, with highly violent outcomes. Additionally, decisions about confinement and release all rest with the judiciary, which is generally inefficient. Prisons are effectively judicial internment centers, and the attention of all -- prisoners, prison staff and judges -- is focused on release rather than confinement. As a result, little sense or meaning pertains to time spent in prison, and there is correspondingly little concern for the conditions found there, despite the best efforts of reformers and enlightened bureaucrats.