Contributor(s)International Prison Observatory - Argentinian Section

Daily life

The law requires that individual cells measure at least 3x3m2. In reality, each cell is equipped with three beds. Sheets and blankets are the responsibility of the inmates. When other prisoners take these, prison staff do not intervene or moderate the conflict.

Hot water is available only occasionally. Drainage is poor and prisons tend to flood when it rains.

The condition of each prison varies according to when it was built. The majority of prisons dating back to the 19th century are in poor condition. Prison conditions also vary depending on if they are under federal, Buenos Aires, or provincial jurisdiction. The prison conditions in Buenos Aires are generally worse than federal prisons. For example, Devoto prison in Buenos Aires has just one shower for every one hundred prisoners and the electrical wires are exposed. There are plans to close this facility but the project is still pending. Provincial prison Unit 1 in Corrientes is also known for its poor conditions.

The Michel Torino center for minors lacks heaters, is damp and has leaks and dangerous electrical installations. Some bathrooms have been partially closed for months and there only two showers have hot water.

Food does not comply with quality standards. In some prisons, inmates with good behavior or culinary skills are permitted to cook under guard supervision. In some prisons, private companies are provide food services. In both cases, food supplies are scarce and inmates depend family support.

The law requires a nutritionist to create the menus for adults and minors but these are not followed in practice. Adolescents interviewed by the Argentinian International Observatory of Prisons (OIP) complained about the size of meals and that they were give very little time to eat. Meals are not delivered daily and they often arrive late due to the poor state of transport vehicles.

Hygiene products are scarce. Many inmates depend on what their friends and families bring them.

Inmates who are trusted by prison personnel are tasked with cleaning communal spaces, collecting trash, and hosing down the corridors. Unhygienic conditions and the presence of pests such as cockroaches, rats, flies and mosquitoes increases the risk of contracting dengue, zika or chikungunya.

Garbage is thrown into a common dumpster and, depending on the prison, removed daily. Dumpsters are emptied directly into the trucks, which leads to pollution and the spread of germs.

The prison health system is controlled by the penitentiary service, not the Ministry of Health. Medical personnel must follow orders directly from prison directors. This compromises the independence of medical staff, especially when assessing ill-treatment or torture.

In the majority of prisons there is an infirmary run by a nurse or doctor who is present during the day. They can treat minor injuries and determine if a patient needs to be transferred to hospital. Psychiatrists visit a few days a week. The nurse in charge may consult with the psychiatrist by telephone.

A report conducted by the Defensoría de Casación de la Provincia de Buenos Aires cites 200 complaints for lack of medical attention in prisons. It lists a range of problems including convulsions, tuberculosis, high temperature, vision, lung conditions, psychological problems (often the result of isolation), among others. For decades there have been complaints about the lack of medicine and expired medications.

The State pays for hospitalizations. Basic medicine is also free, but specific medications are the responsibility of the inmate or the inmate’s family. Payment assistance can be requested from the National Ministry of Social Action (federal prisons) or the Provincial Ministry of Health (provincial prisons). Inmates who suffer from HIV/AIDS often appeal to them.

People who are addicted to drugs and seek drug rehabilitation do not receive enough attention. Prison authorities can organize support groups if staff have completed a three-month course. The OIP considers that training level is not sufficient to provide appropriate support.

Prisons often hold people with addictions and people with mental illness together. Depression is recurrent and rarely treated; appointments with a psychologist or psychiatrist are short and treatment programs are not developed.

The quality and frequency of prison activities depends on the province or if the prison is a federal penitentiaries. The Penal System of Buenos Aires (SPB) periodically organizes inter-prison football championships. There are also literary, journalism, or reading workshops available. Different spiritual advisors organize bible readings.

Libraries are scarce and the majority rely on donations. Some prisoners donate their books upon release. Not all inmates have access to the libraries or to study rooms.
All of these activities are intended for small groups, and must be authorized by the penal administration, which often prohibits them for “reasons of security”.

59% of prisoners (37,929) nationwide do not have a paid work, a percentage that has remained steady over the last five years according to the 2014 SNEEP report. Of the 26,572 prisoners working, only 15% work 40 hours or less per week.

Jobs include agricultural work or animal feed production, furniture production, production of sports or cleaning equipment and maintenance of the prison. The Court of Appeals declared in 2014 that jobs done for private companies must be compensated with the minimum wage of 22 pesos/hour (1.47 USD) for 200 hours monthly. The prisoner does not receive the money directly as one-third is given to the victim as compensation, another third is kept for personal expenses and the final third is only given to the prisoner upon release. If the prisoner is employed by the State, it is possible that the work will not be compensated as it is considered restitution to society.

There is a union for inmate workers: Sindicado Único de Trabajadores Privados de la Libertad Ambulatoria (SUTPLA). It has representatives in four federal penal institutions: Prison Complex I and Prison Complex IV in Ezeiza, Unit 4 in Santa Rosa, and Complex II in Marcos Paz. There is also a branch in the Viedma prison that falls under the penitentiary service of Río Negro.

Basic schooling is obligatory for prisoners who have not completed it prior. It is possible to undertake secondary or university studies, but the penitentiary administration does not encourage the prisoners to do so : study time is considered recreational time, and for this reason it prevents them from accessing the prison yard afterwards.

According to the 2014 SNEEP report, 48% (32,000) of the total prison population in the country do not participate in any educational program. In the Federal Penitentiary System (SPF), 14% (1,300) participate. Among them, 1.6% (1,139) work toward higher education.

The SPF has tried to close the Centro Universitario de Devoto (CUD) on various occasions as it is under the authority of the University of Buenos Aires, making it is difficult for the SPF to impose their security rules.

Teachers who work in the prisons must possess a special training certificate in addition to a teaching license. Training is different for teachers who work in centers for minors and those who work in prisons.

Religion can be freely practiced. The most represented are Christian evangelism, Catholicism, and the Afro-Brazilian religions of Umbanda or Quimbanda.   

Christian evangelism is the most influential religion because many pastors are present in the Argentinean jail system. In certain prisons, evangelical groups take control of a prison wing and ask the prisoners to convert to Evangelism to benefit from their protection. This is common practice in prisons in Buenos Aires such as Magdalena prison.

All the prisons have a Catholic chapel but there are few priests present. Chaplains who participate receive a stipend.

Human rights organizations and legally recognized civil society organizations can, in theory, access the prison with a prior request.

The OIP was prevented from entering federal prisons during the term of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It was alleged that the organization had not been active since 1999, despite registering activity six months prior. The OIP continued its efforts in spite of this and was able to monitor the voting process in federal prisons by order of the Federal Electoral Chamber. Access was never denied to provincial prisons.

Prisoners can have a savings account administered by a trusted person (family member, attorney, or friend), to deposit wages earned from prison work. These savings can only be used to cover basic personal expenses. Social assistance organizations and, on occasion, the State help destitute prisoners. Basic items can be acquired inside prisons, but at prices above market value.

There are radios in some prisons and some publish magazines that, aside from allowing prisoners to express their ideas and spread literature, give them an opportunity to learn a trade.

The SUTPLA is not a legal entity, but is a member of the Association of State Workers (ATE).

People in custody have been able to exercise their right to vote since 2006, when the law inherited from the dictatorship was modified. The former law prohibited all prisoners voting. Youths between 16 and 18 years of age have the option to vote (voting is compulsory for those over 18).

Physical abuse and item confiscations from cells are used as punishments. If sharp objects or other weapons are found, prisoners are put in isolation.

Prisoners are searched upon entering and leaving the visitor rooms or when they go to a gathering place such as a football field. The Enforcement Law N°24.660 requires body searches to respect human dignity and that “manual searches whenever possible be substituted by non-intrusive sensors or other appropriate and efficient non-touch technology”(Art.163). According to the PPN, the sensors have not been implemented in any prison, and manual searches continue to be used.

Narcotics have been observed inside prisons, brought in secretly by visitors or by penitentiary employees. Whilst security systems are efficient, escapes can occur when prison employees are complicit. On 27 December 2015, three prisoners sentenced to life for drug trafficking escaped from the maximum security prison General Alvear in Santa Fe. The prisoners should have been under special custody and monitored by security cameras. The cameras were reportedly not been working since October, but it has also been alleged that the videos were seized by the Secretary of Criminal Policy, Ministry of Justice of Buenos Aires. The escapees were captured thirteen days later. This case attracted significant media coverage, given ties suspected between SPB police and certain political sectors.