Prison reform IDB Latin America

Modernisation of the penitentiary systems in Latin America and the Caribbean: the role of the Inter-American Development Bank

If, as Dostoyevsky said, the degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons, we could assume that the degree of civilization in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) countries is still very far from modern societies and from what it should be.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has embarked on a project to reverse this reality, collaborating with the LAC countries in the creation of more modern prison systems, which would put rehabilitation and social reintegration at the core of their mission.

The problem has a huge magnitude and a growing trend. Today, the prison population in LAC is 1.45 million. If the current growth rate is maintained, by 2030 it will be 4.5 million (ILANUD, 2014). While, 20 years ago, most of the countries in the region had less than 100 prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants, today that rate exceeds 200.

In detail, and according to World Prison Brief, in 2016 the incarceration rate for ALC was 305 per 100,000 inhabitants (242 for South America, 308 for Central America and 376 for the Caribbean countries), is the region of the world with the highest relative growth of inmates.

In comparison, the world average rate is 144 per 100,000 inhabitants. At the same time, on average, for every 100 prison places that exist in the region, there are 171 inmates (ILANUD, 2013, UNODC, 2015).

This is the result of a highly punitive criminal policy, which has focused on increasing sentences, rather than on the social rehabilitation of people who have come into conflict with the law.

This situation is accompanied by a deficit of unprecedented infrastructure and equipment; studies done by the IDB show that the average regional delay in this issue is at least 30 years (López, M. 2017).

This situation prevents LAC prison systems from complying with international standards to guarantee and respect inmates’ rights; it generates instability in the management and hinders the organised, safe and effective administration of the detention centres; additionally, hampers efficient delivery and rehabilitation services.

In fact, the offer of this services only covers a minimum percentage of those deprived of liberty; for example, in Brazil, only 9.6% of inmates work and study; in El Salvador, 35.2%; in Argentina, 39.4%; in Chile, 41.1%; and in Mexico, 44.5% (UNDP, 2013).

A very serious problem is the widespread inability of the systems to prevent violence. Between 2010 and 2016, there were at least 19 high-impact riots in LAC: in January 2017, in Manaus, Brazil, a riot resulted in 60 deaths; in July 2016, at the Pavón Penal Farm, Guatemala, a riot caused 13 deaths and 10 injuries; in March 2016, a riot in a high-security prison in Georgetown, Guyana, resulted in 16 deaths; in the prison of Uribana, in Venezuela, the riots have been continuous, the deadliest of which, in January 2013, produced 54 deaths and more than 90 wounded; in Honduras, 376 people died after the catastrophe of the Comayagua Penal Farm in 2012, which caused a global upheaval.

This inability to control and the installed misgovernment are also reflected in the high incidence of criminal activity from prisons in LAC, with frequent extortions and homicides planned and ordered from inside the prisons.

This serious situation in LAC has been caused by the high punitiveness of criminal policies, and the high frequency of pre-trial detention calculated between 30% and 50% (Carranza, 2009). According to the ILANUD, this situation has practically not changed in the last 15 years.

This problem affects women as well: according to data from the Open Society Foundation (2013), 4 out of 10 women are in preventive detention. From an overall perspective, it could be assumed that the main reason of the crisis has been the approach to tackle the problem; the region has focused in expanding prisons capacity much more than in rehabilitation and social reintegration of prisoners.

In order to start changing this reality, the IDB currently advises the LAC countries in adopting comprehensive penitentiary policies, considering the social integration of inmates, the respect of their rights and their reintegration within their families and in society.

In Central America, for example, the IDB is providing support for the conformation of the Regional Committee of Directors of Penitentiary Systems, a regional coordination structure that analyses the contents of prisons’ public policies and has created a platform to exchange good practices about prisons’ management and inmates’ rehabilitation programmes.

The Committee also supports the development of reliable information systems to revise policies, formulate new ones based in facts, and develop strategic plans.

Following the same line, the IDB has supported different processes in the region: prison surveys in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guyana and the Bahamas; training programmes for officials in registration systems and development of penitentiary information schemes; and the Penitentiary Census in Panama.

Meanwhile, the IDB has been working to improve: (i) prisons´ management, including human resources; (ii) identification of the most suitable infrastructure and equipment to assist prisoners; (iii) evaluation of the contents of penitentiary social rehabilitation programmes, pointing out the flaws and the aspects that need to be revised to meet international standards.

In some cases, the IDB is considering signing public-private agreements that would support these initiatives; this is the case of Colombia.

Only working in this direction, we can make sure that the prison centers in LAC are a clear reflection of a region that is moving towards better standards of modernity and development. 


Andres Restrepo Restrepo is a Citizen Security Lead Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank since 2010. Prior, he was Deputy Secretary of Citizenship Security and Peaceful Coexistence at the Bogota City Hall, Colombia. His areas of expertise include designing and developing policies and strategies to enforce citizenship security and
peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and social welfare. His academic background includes a degree in Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law from the Javeriana University (Colombia) and postgraduate studies (master’s and PhD degree) at Russian universities. Currently works from the IDB office in Guatemala.


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