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Overcrowding and Prison Crisis: Afroresistance's urgent call for penitentiary reforms

Prison overcrowding in the Americas is a serious issue that deteriorates the quality of life within prisons. This phenomenon occurs when the number of detainees exceeds the capacity of the facilities, leading to unsanitary conditions and human rights violations. Incarcerated individuals suffer from lack of space, inadequate ventilation, and restricted access to basic needs such as water and sanitation. Overcrowding also affects the availability of essential services such as medical care and educational and rehabilitation programs, negatively impacting everyone involved in the penitentiary system and society at large.

"In the Americas, the situation of overcrowding in prisons is a crisis we cannot ignore. It is urgent to improve prison conditions, paying special attention to black women of all gender identities, who face disproportionate levels of gender and race discrimination. This reality demands an urgent response that centers their experiences and fights against these intertwined forms of oppression." AFRORESISTANCE

Despite state efforts to improve the situation, the problem of overcrowding remains one of the main concerns in the field of justice and human rights in the Americas. Colombia and Honduras have historically faced high levels of violence and crime, leading to an increase in the number of people detained and convicted. This is compounded by the prolonged duration of judicial processes, contributing to an increase in the prison population without adequate capacity to house all convicted individuals. Generally, the penitentiary systems of countries implement different strategies to address the problem of overcrowding. These include the construction of new prisons and the expansion of existing facilities, as well as the implementation of alternative measures to prison for certain non-violent offenses. However, these efforts do not fully resolve the problem.

According to official data from the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC) of Colombia in 2021, the country's total penitentiary system capacity was approximately 80,000 slots, while the incarcerated population exceeded 120,000 inmates, indicating a significant level of overcrowding which decreased by February 2022, reporting that the prison population was 97,260 people, while the total capacity across the country was 80,647, resulting in an overpopulation of 16,613 and an overcrowding rate of 20.6%.

In 2022, the personero of Cali expressed concern about the high rates of overcrowding at the Villahermosa penitentiary center, located in Cali. Although this facility has a capacity to house 2,046 inmates, there are currently 4,513 individuals incarcerated, of which 2,854 are convicted and 1,659 are accused. These figures represent an overcrowding level of 110%. Faced with this situation, the Personería de Cali has highlighted joint efforts with the Ministry of Justice to reduce overcrowding at the Villahermosa penitentiary center. Just last year, 600 individuals deprived of liberty were transferred to other penitentiary centers in the country, reducing the overcrowding level from 300% to 110%.

Overcrowding also has implications for security and control within prisons. The stressful living conditions and lack of space can generate tensions and conflicts among the incarcerated individuals, as well as difficulties for the penitentiary staff in their task of maintaining order and ensuring safety. The penitentiary system of Honduras has been criticized by human rights organizations due to the precarious conditions, overcrowding, and lack of adequate security and rehabilitation measures. These problems have contributed to an environment conducive to violence and conflicts within prisons.

In Central America, the prison situation is worrisome. El Salvador faces critical overcrowding, with over 38,000 inmates in facilities designed for approximately 18,000, reflecting the severity of the prison situation in the country (World Prison Brief). Panama, although with more specific data lacking, has experienced similar problems of overcrowding and deplorable conditions in its prisons in the past, and these problems are likely to continue without significant reforms in the penitentiary and judicial system.

En Sudamérica, Ecuador muestra una tasa de ocupación carcelaria del 133%, con graves problemas de violencia exacerbados por políticas punitivas sobre drogas y el uso excesivo de detención preventiva. Las prisiones ecuatorianas están plagadas de violencia interna, incluyendo masacres organizadas por pandillas, y un personal de seguridad insuficiente y mal entrenado que agrava la situación​ (Human Rights Watch)​​ (OHCHR)​​ (Al Jazeera)​​ (Al Jazeera)​​ (Atalayar)​. Brasil, por otro lado, tiene una población carcelaria de 839,672 personas, con un 26.9% de detenidos en espera de juicio, destacando también problemas de sobrepoblación y los desafíos que esto conlleva​ (World Prison Brief)​.

In South America, Ecuador shows a prison occupancy rate of 133%, with severe problems of violence exacerbated by punitive drug policies and excessive use of pretrial detention. Ecuadorian prisons are plagued by internal violence, including massacres organized by gangs, and an insufficient and poorly trained security staff that aggravates the situation (Human Rights Watch) (OHCHR) (Al Jazeera) (Al Jazeera) (Atalayar). Brazil, on the other hand, has a prison population of 839,672 people, with 26.9% of detainees awaiting trial, also highlighting problems of overcrowding and the challenges it entails (World Prison Brief).

Haiti faces one of the most extreme levels of overcrowding globally, with 82% of its prison population in pretrial detention and an occupancy rate reaching 454.4%. The conditions are extremely difficult, and the lack of an effective judicial system further aggravates the situation, reflecting a deep penitentiary crisis (Penal Reform Trust) (Atalayar).

These cases in Latin America underline the urgent need for reforms to improve prison conditions and address the underlying causes of violence and overcrowding, always respecting human rights and under strict civilian oversight.

On June 20th, a tragic incident occurred in Honduras, where historically there have been issues of overcrowding, violence, and lack of security in prisons. These challenging conditions have led to riots and disturbances within prisons, resulting in loss of life due to disputes between rival criminal groups. Unfortunately, in this latest incident, 46 women lost their lives at the Women's Social Adaptation Center (Cefas).

According to the 2022 Human Rights Situation Report in Honduras issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (OACNUDH), there has been a 34.2% overcrowding rate in the country's prisons. This implies that, on average, there are 19,842 adult individuals housed in 25 penitentiary centers. These figures reflect a concerning situation in the Honduran prison system, where overcrowding has become a significant challenge. The high number of incarcerated individuals in relation to the capacity of prison facilities makes it difficult to ensure adequate conditions such as safety and well-being for incarcerated individuals.

At AFRORESISTANCE, we emphasize the need to address prison overcrowding in Colombia and Honduras with a comprehensive approach that includes both the underlying causes and the direct consequences of this issue. It is crucial to ensure respect for the human rights of incarcerated women, seeking a fairer and more equitable prison system. Structural causes such as lack of access to justice, poverty, social inequality, and limited economic opportunities require the collaboration of various actors including the government, civil society, and the international community to achieve significant changes.

Addressing racial and gender inequalities within prisons poses a crucial challenge, highlighting the importance of the Bangkok Rules urging for greater economic equality and security for women, especially those who are racialized, during and after their incarceration.

It is essential to strengthen policies and programs that promote economic equality and social inclusion for incarcerated women. The Bangkok Rules advocate for the creation of employment and vocational training opportunities, and financial support to facilitate successful reintegration into society. The implementation of these measures not only benefits women but also contributes to the prevention and reduction of overcrowding in prisons, improving the possibility of carrying out effective rehabilitation programs and promoting dignified living conditions for all individuals in incarceration. The fight against systematic racism in criminal justice systems also requires urgent attention, as Black people and other racial minorities continue to be disproportionately affected by high rates of incarceration and discrimination.

Finally, we reiterate the importance of concrete and effective measures to combat overcrowding and improve living conditions in prisons. This includes improving prison infrastructure, providing adequate training to prison staff, and strengthening criminal justice systems to streamline processes and promote alternatives to prison for non-violent offenses. It is imperative to implement policies that promote the social reintegration of incarcerated women through rehabilitation and training programs, seeking long-term solutions that ensure justice and equity for all individuals, regardless of their race or gender, in the prison system.


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