Prisons are overcrowded and the number of incarcerations continues to rise. There were 9,651 prisoners in 2008, 14,468 in 2012 and 17,197 as of April 2016. World Prison Brief. Those who have been convicted are mixed together with defendants awaiting trial.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern about this situation in 2013. It labelled the incarceration rate as “extraordinarily high”, with 411 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants that year. By April 2016, it had reached a rate of 426 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. The Commission stated that reform was needed. Otherwise, the country “will have to build a detention facility with a capacity for 1,000 inmates every year to keep up with the current growth rate of the prison population”.
The Commission is also concerned about the number of people in remand. In December 2015, the rate of untried prisoners was at 62.6%.
Long pre-trial detention times were also covered in the Universal Periodic Review on May 6th, 2015 before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Pre-trial detention can be as long as a year and it can sometimes exceed the minimum sentence received. The bail system is largely unused1.
An extensive reform of the judicial system was implemented between 2008 and 2016, moving from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system (see Access to Legal Rights). The reform is intended to reduce lengthy legal processes. Several South and Central American countries have undergone this reform. Chile changed to the adversarial system between 2000 and 2005 and Colombia has had it since 2005. The results do not show a significant reduction in overpopulation. However, the arraignment process is speedier and the rate of pre-trial detention has decreased2. In May 2015, the government reported a 60% to 70% decrease in pre-trial detention3.
In 2015, a computerized system to ensure accurate information on inmates was implemented by the Controller General of the Republic. It is supposed to speed up the legal process and reduce remand time.
In March 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report on the situation of incarcerated women in Panama.
The rate of female incarceration increases at the same rate as that of men. Both increased by 29% between 2010 and 2014. The most recent number of incarcerated females was 1,077 in March 2014 (World Prison Brief).
There are five prison facilities for women:
- “Doña Cecilia Chiari Orillac” Rehabilitation Centre for Women (CEFERE), in the Panama Province. It holds 84% of the population of incarcerated females
- “Los Algarrobos” Women’s Centre in the Chiriqui Province has 8%
- Colón Women’s Centre in the Colón Province
- Llano Marin Women’s Centre in the Coclé Province
- Guararé Women’s Centre in the Los Santos Province
Ten percent of incarcerated women have children under 3 years of age. There are no facilities for pregnant women or for mothers with children under six months who do not want to be separated from them. The spaces designated for this at CEFERE and Los Algarrobos were closed. The CEFERE has a nursery where, during visits, incarcerated mothers can spend four hours per day with their children who are under 5 years of age.
The facilities are supposed to provide space for conjugal visits. The spaces at Llano Marin and Los Algarrobos are in adequate. The one at the CEFERE is run down and small. There are none at Colón and Guararé.
Female prisoners are given three meals a day; they work in the kitchen at CEFERE, Colón and Los Algarrobos. This work can allow for a reduction in their sentence time. An outside caterer prepares the meals for Llano Marin and Guararé.
Personal hygiene products are not guaranteed. Basic supplies such as toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, tooth brushes, shampoo, and sanitary napkins are not provided to the inmates. These products are available for purchase, but cost more than market price. Two sanitary napkins cost one dollar and a bar of soap costs a dollar and a half.
Sanitary conditions are poor at CEFERE and Colón. Waste accumulates due to irregular collection services. At CEFERE, waste water stagnates in common areas and there are often infestations of mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, and cats. The administration has made no effort to address this situation. Medical services are inadequate. CEFERE does not have enough toilets and shower facilities. One unit has two toilets and three showers. On average, this amounts to one toilet for 50 inmates and one shower for 33. Most of them are broken. In CEFERE’s Unit 10, UNDOC observed only one toilet for 118 women.
There are six juvenile centres and they are overcrowded1.
Panama submitted its report on 7 July 2016, in preparation for its review by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in June 2017.
Minors are subject to a special regime for criminal responsibility that was established by the 26 August 1999 Law 40. The law is intended to have an educational approach. Minors under 12 years of age are not criminally responsible.
Custody should be used only as a last resort. There are two types of non-custodial educational measures: socio-educational sanctions and guidance and supervision orders. According to the government, 165 adolescents were placed under these measures as of May 2016. The Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (Instituto de Estudios Interdisciplinarios IEI) is responsible for the implementation and follow-up of the custodial and non-custodial sentences handed down to minors.
Girls and boys must be separated in detention centres for minors. Those awaiting trial and those who have been sentenced also must be separated.
A detention centre for young adults is under construction. The centre is intended to hold those who have become adults while serving a sentence in order to keep these individuals out of adult prisons.
United States Department of State, “Country report on human rights practices for 2015 - Panama” ↩
In March 2013, there were 1,300 foreigners in Panama’s prisons. Sixty percent of these were cases of pre-trial detention.
The slow legal process is a barrier to their returning home. Only those who have been sentenced can apply for extradition, and diplomatic red tape can delay this process for up to a year. An extradition treaty must exist between Panama and the prisoner’s home country. Panama has signed 12 bilateral and two multilateral extradition agreements. Sometimes the home country refuses to let the inmate return due to overcrowding in its own prisons. Some nationalities must meet specific requirements: Colombians, for example, must serve at least half of their sentence before returning to their own country.
Six foreign inmates were extradited in 2016, 14 in 2014, and 41 in 20151.