Contributor(s)Prison Insider

Contact with the outside world

Several recent reform measures aim to improve prison conditions.

Prison system reform began in 2010. It is supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Union. Informative publications such as brochures and flyers have been developed as a result of this collaboration. They explain the procedures and conditions regarding various situations, such disciplinary measures, probation, and sentence review. They must be made available to all inmates and left in common areas around prison facilities.

Extensive reform of the judicial system was undertaken, from 2008 to 2016, in order to move from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system. The procedures as well as the treatment of defendants and untried prisoners depend on the nature of the system. The inquisitorial approach is conducted in writing, in secret, and is non-adversarial. It favours society’s interest and grants considerable prerogative to the judge who directs both the trial and the search for evidence. In contrast, the adversarial system is oral, public, and confrontational. It favours individual interest. Above all, it allows for better defence for the accused by virtue of a contentious system in which parties argue claims and present evidence. In the adversarial system, the judge acts only as an arbitrator.

Judicial system reform is intended to reduce the excessive length of judicial proceedings. Several South and Central American countries have undergone this type of reform. Between 2000 and 2005, Chile changed to the adversarial system and Colombia started to do so in 2005. The results do not show a significant reduction in incarcerations. However, the trials are quicker and the rate of pre-trial detention is lower1.

Reform in Panama is implemented region by region. The last reforms were implemented in the most populated regions of Panama, Colón, Darien, and Guna Yala in September 2016. In May 2015, the government reported a 63% decrease in the length of judicial proceedings. Defendants can more readily access a lawyer2.

  1. Human Rights Clinic (Stanford University), “La crisis en Panamá continúa”, October 2013 (Spanish) 

  2. United Nations Human Rights Council, Panama Universal Periodic Review, 8 July 2015 

Panama ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) on June 2nd, 2011. In the year following ratification, countries are obligated to establish a National Preventative Mechanism against Torture (NPM).

No NPM has been established. The government stated during its May 2015 review by the United Nations Human Rights Council “that a sub-commission was created to set up the national mechanism for the prevention of torture. The sub-commission agreed that the national mechanism would be a new independent institution created by law”.

Prisoners may file their complaints to the authorities. All allegations of human rights violations must be investigated. The authorities do not make the findings public. Complaints regarding prison conditions go to the Panama Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo de Panamá), which visits the prisons in Panama City (La Joyita, La Joya, La Nueva Joya) and in Colón weekly and visits the other prisons twice a year1.