UN voices concern over ‘alarming pattern of violence’ in Latin American prisons

UN Photo

17 February 2012 – The United Nations today voiced concern over the recent wave of violence in Latin American prisons, citing overcrowding, a lack of access to basic services, judicial delays, and excessive pre-trial detention as some of the causes which have worsened conditions in detention facilities.

Earlier this week, more than 350 prisoners died in an overnight fire at a jail north of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, and the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) urged the Government to investigate the causes of the fire and whether conditions at the prison contributed to the loss of lives.

The prison, which was reportedly designed to hold 250 detainees, was housing more than 800 inmates when the fire broke out.

This week’s fire is the third such incident resulting in multiple deaths in a Honduran prison in the past decade, OHCHR reported. In 2004, 66 inmates were killed in the prison in El Porvenir, as well as two women and a girl who were visiting their relatives. A year later, 107 detainees died a prison in San Pedro Sula, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared a direct consequence of a series of structural deficiencies, which were known by the authorities, but which were neither attended to nor corrected in time.

OHCHR noted that the problems concerning prisons are not confined to Honduras only, citing similar cases in Argentina, Chile, Panama, Venezuela, and Uruguay. Most recently, OHCHR expressed concern about a video that emerged showing a handcuffed female prisoner who had just given birth in Brazil, in clear contravention of international human rights standards.

“States have an obligation to ensure that conditions of detention are compatible with the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” said Rupert Colville, OHCHR spokesperson.

“All individuals deprived of their liberty have the right to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, as recognized by international human rights instruments,” he said.

Prison conditions across Latin America have been repeatedly criticized in UN reports, which provide recommendations for authorities so they can comply with international human rights standards, such as establishing impartial mechanisms for inspecting and visiting places of detention and confinement.

“We urge the governments of the region to act on these recommendations, to prevent further tragedies from occurring,” Mr. Colville said.

OHCHR called on countries in the region to establish a national preventive mechanism for the prevention of torture as required by the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, as no South American country has done so yet.


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