Contributor(s)Rolando Arbusún Rodríguez / Traslator: Briane Laruy / Reviewer: Ako Allan Agbor

Daily life

As a rule, the cells are occupied by at least two people. However, this typology is very variable; indeed, it is common for more prisoners to share the same cell, especially in older institutions.

There is no official regulation concerning the dimensions of the cells, nor the elements they must contain (tables, chairs, etc.). The aesthetics of each cell varies considerably. For example, in these cells of more than two people, sheets and/or towels are shared in an effort to improvise private spaces.

Theoretically, there should be no prisoners without a bed or mattress. However, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs and the National Mechanism for Prevention denounced irregular situations such as the absence or poor condition of beds and mattresses.

Not all units have cells with permanent access to water. Lack of light and ventilation greatly aggravate the living conditions to which prisoners are subjected to, especially in renovated or old cells.

The authorities do not handle cell allocation. In Uruguayan prison slang, it is said that the prisoner must “buscar cabida”, “find his place”. The only criteria used for the assignment of cells are whether the prisoner knows other prisoners ready to receive him, or simply assign him a cell where there is room.

Cell changes are frequent and do not follow a standardized procedure to detect any abuse situation and/or practices related to corruption by officials or prisoners.

Three meals are served daily: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The quality of the food provided is poor. The National Rehabilitation Institute (INR) has made efforts in the past to distribute better quality food products, but these efforts have been insufficient and it has not been successful overall in improving the quality of the food provided.

Each unit is equipped with a kitchen area; however, the equipment is insufficient and is of questionable hygienic conditions. The prisoners are themselves responsible for the preparation of food. Meals are transported in large pots placed on trolleys; this results in a great loss of heat.

The most common dish is called “rancho”, a military expression for a kind of “rice soup and/or vermicelli”. The “rancho” is served very frequently in prisons, regardless of the season.

As the food is insufficient and of poor quality, the prisoners improvise “cocinillas artesanales”, “artisanal kitchenettes”, with small stoves made of bricks, and cook inside their cells from the remains of meals that they are served and food brought by their relatives on visiting days.

The kitchen and the canteen (food warehouse) are reputed to be the most sensitive nuclei and the most vulnerable to the various practices of corruption and the trafficking of resources, which also explains the important shortcomings observed in the food of the prisoners.

The highly regulated installation of small “supermarkets” where the prisoners, without directly having access to money, can acquire certain products of hygiene and food was authorized in only three units.

Prisoners subject to medicines with contraindications have a special menu in accordance with the doctor’s recommendations.

Hygiene conditions are directly related to the form of management of the different units; some prisons have serious health problems, as is the case in a significant part of Units 3, 4 and 7.

In these three units, which are the largest, garbage accumulates for days due to lack of containers and lack of frequent collection. This causes the proliferation of rodents and dirt of all kinds, easily seen by all.

Household instruments, as useful as toiletries, are rare, and their replenishment does not correspond to the frequency of use necessary to ensure the cleanliness and hygiene of the premises.

In Uruguay, prisoners do not wear uniforms. The only exception is High Security Ward 12 in Unit 4, where prisoners are dressed in uniforms and the prison administration replaces them.

In all other prisons, detainees put on the clothes brought by their relatives, who are therefore largely responsible for their replacement.

There is no Unit with a laundry service for prisoners or officials; the inmates are responsible for washing their own clothes.

The large number of cases of prisoners with tuberculosis is the consequence of the unsanitary conditions in which the prisons are found. There are seven times more cases of tuberculosis in prison than in the general population, and its impact can only be compared to that in the most socially and economically vulnerable neighbourhoods.

The Ministry of Public Health is responsible for prison health in 40% of the Units. The Police Health Directorate administers the remaining 60%.

Gradually, most units have been equipped with a medical care sector to treat primary conditions, with specialists and generally in respect of medical confidentiality. However, some Units have not yet seen these efforts materialize. For example, some provide high-level medical care and prevention, while others continue to apply old practices such as obstructing access to health services, based on discrimination by the security in charge.

Coordination between the units’medical care areas and outpatient hospitals is slow and often ineffective, a consequence of difficulties in logistical and human resources encountered in transferring patients. Prisoners are transferred to outpatient hospitals only for highly specialized consultations, internments or major surgical operations.

Complaints have been made about the reckless use of psychotropic drugs to discipline the most agitated people, especially detained women and adolescents. This practice also generates significant illegal trafficking of psychotropic drugs, especially in Units where leisure, violence and confinement are the rule on a daily basis.

The National Institute for Rehabilitation (INR) has launched a program for the prevention of tuberculosis in all Units, which includes the creation of small isolation rooms.

The HIV / AIDS care program is based on the same preventive measures as those seen outside prisons, such as the anti-retroviral treatment.

The INR does not set up any support program for drug-dependent people, even though drug use and addiction are increasingly a catalyst for violence in prison.

Officially, all prisoners are entitled to hours of walking, educational, recreational and artistic activities. However, these rules are applied differently in each unit, ranging from situations of large restrictions and limitations to others offering better and wider conditions.

In the 2016 Annual Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner, the various situations of the system are described: “[…] The lack of prison operators to accompany prisoners has the effect that they cannot access other spaces than their cells: classes, workshops, gym, lounges, work rooms. The sum of these two factors is fatal: in these cases, the prison becomes a prison in the prison, which is to say a total isolation. Isolation from others, the world and, just as suddenly, isolation from the opportunity to return to society with chances to live in freedom.
For a large part of the detainees in the system, incarceration becomes a meaningless space of time […] It can be said that more than 60% of the penitentiary system has bad or very poor conditions of detention, where Isolation is usual, relations are limited and charged with violence and danger of death, and where the socio-educational offer is almost non-existent […]

On the other hand, some Units allow a better offer of activities to the detainees. For example, yoga workshops are offered to detainees in Unit 6 (known as “Punta Rieles Prison”).

At least two small newspapers are designed and written by prisoners: one in the Educational Community of Unit 4 and another in Unit 6. In the latter, a radio controlled by prisoners has been broadcasting since 2012, without any censorship rules and without generating any conflict so far.

There is also a theatre group which has presented several of their works in other Units and theatres of the country.

  1. Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs, “Annual Report - 2016”, p.14-15. 

The system for remission of sentences for work and / or study falls within the scope of Chapter IV of law nº17.897 of 2005. It was regulated by Decree nº225/06, which has had many modifications.

Although work and studies are officially recognized as prisoners’ rights and the State’s obligation to offer, access to work is influenced by requirements of discipline, while the supply of dignified jobs remains more the expression of a desire than a reality.

Opportunities for work or study are limited. The 2016 Annual Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner states that only 26% of prisoners enjoy conditions conducive to a reintegration process, for 41% the conditions are insufficient and for 33% of the detainees, there have been treatments described as cruel, inhuman and degrading 1.

Few Units offer job training and access to work that meets the requirements of the law. Unit 6 and the Industrial Pole of the Santiago Vázquez Rehabilitation Centre are two institutions that fully respect the rules of work, but they are more the exception than the rule.

Private companies can install themselves in the different Units and receive tax benefits to increase the supply of jobs inside prisons.
The main examples illustrating this practice are in Unit 6 and the Industrial Centre of the Santiago Vázquez Rehabilitation Centre. In Unit 6, detainees are also free to carry out productive activities on their behalf, as long as they respect the rules and tax standards provided by the labour regulations in force in the country. In these two establishments, the remuneration is equal to that fixed by the wage councils of the Ministry of Labour.

Despite some positive experiences, in general, prison work is precarious and unpaid. In most penitentiary establishments, work and studies are only instruments for the reduction of sentences.

In some Units, prisoners who perform tasks related to the household or the distribution of meals are paid by a “peculio” (“savings”), which corresponds to less than half of a national minimum wage and of which the prisoner can only receive in parts.

The Victims of Crime Assistance Act also provides that 10% of the remuneration received by each prisoner is paid into the Crime Victims Fund.

Job opportunities for women prisoners are much lower than for men, and the majority of jobs they obtain follow the domestic and conjugal logic that ends up reproducing the subjective forms of subordination to which women are reduced.

  1. Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs, “Annual Reports-2016”, p. 19. 

Detainees working

37 %

/ Annual report of the Penitentiary Parliamentary Commissioner

Law regulates academic training in prison, but the regulations are not binding and their implementation depends on the authorities of the National Public Education.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs stated in their 2016 Annual Report that the number of educational activities in prison has increased in recent years, but that the supply remains insufficient. According to data from the Teaching Coordination of the National Reintegration Institute (INR), 4/5 of those incarcerated did not carry out any activities during the month of October 2016. The report is based on the participation of 2,126 people that month, which represents 21% of the prison population (37% women and 20% men). No prison has a percentage higher than 50% of those studying and in Unit 4 (Santiago Vázquez) less than 10% of the detained population participated in an educational activity 1.

The teaching offer covers all levels, from literacy to higher education. Prisoners who register to pursue higher education are in the minority. The most followed studies are psychology and engineering.

The number of students who present their exams in the year varies considerably. In 2016, 2,342 high school students passed their exams and 1,392 completed at least one exam, this represents 14% of the prison population.

As with work, participation in educational activities depends on security logic, the confinement and control of the criminal population in the dynamics of daily life.

  1. Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs, “Annual Report - 2016”, p.31-32 

Prison authorities allow detainees free access to television and radio. The distribution or presence of print media is uncommon, except in Units that have libraries.

Unit 6 (Punta Rieles) and some smaller units have digital insertion spaces that allow controlled access and navigation over the Internet. Internet access is totally restricted in Ward 12 of Unit 4.

The penitentiary system imposes no restrictions on religious worship. The Units have dedicated spaces for this purpose and the intervention of congregations of different religions is allowed.

In order to regulate the religious practices in prison, the National Institute for Rehabilitation (INR) established the Protocol of Life and Religious Practice in Prisons.

Prisons have pavilions that bring together detainees of one religion, especially evangelicals. The detainees themselves request this separation.

The participation of external organizations and institutions is permitted and encouraged by the prison authorities, provided that it is authorized and coordinated in advance.

Civil society organizations intervene in prison and devote themselves to community work and education. For example, Unit 4 (Punta Rieles) has a special area reserved for yoga activities, proposed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and university students.

The main NGOs defending the rights of those incarcerated are the Peace and Justice Service - Uruguay (SERPAJ) and the Uruguayan Institute of Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR).

The circulation of money inside the units is prohibited.

Relatives have the opportunity to deposit money in the administrative offices and the detainees can access it via vouchers that allow them to buy, whenever possible, different food products and / or personal hygiene products.

NGOs and consulates make substantial donations of clothing and other items to detainees.

Relatives can send parcels, as long as they respect the administrative regulations in the matter. However, conditions change often, which makes it harder for prisoners to receive these packages.

Decree-Law No. 14.470 regulates the right to petition. As a general rule, the prisoner presents his petition to his area manager or directly to the legal offices of the units. The advisers of the Parliamentary Commissioner forward complaints for Prison Affairs and / or through representatives of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture.

The offices of these two institutions are where relatives lodge most complaints. The offices are in charge of launching the investigation procedures provided for in the international regulations and protocols.

These two entities do not depend on the Ministry of the Interior, but their recommendations are not binding for the prison authorities.

Prisoners cannot vote in national or departmental elections, and the possibility of organizing collective meetings depends on the goodwill of the prison authorities.

Mutiny or hostage taking did not mark the year.

Several cases of escape were reported in units in the interior of the country, but the fugitive detainees were captured almost immediately.

When a prisoner escapes, his profile is published on the web pages of the Ministry of the Interior and the National Reintegration Institute (INR), in order to stimulate the exchange of information allowing for their capture.

The National Operational Branch of the National Reintegration Institute (INR) is responsible for planning security actions in the various units, including searches of individual or collective cells.

All search actions are aimed at eliminating prohibited items that pose a risk to the security, stability of the unit and the lives of prisoners and officials.

In 2016, a group of 12 police officers were arrested, and one of them was sentenced to prison for excessive use of force during searches in Ward 12 of Unit 4.

This type of action does not require judicial authorization. If prohibited objects are found and the person in possession of the object is identified, the case is forwarded to the competent judge who decides whether new criminal measures should be taken against the offender.

The INR has authorized the opening of a permanent isolation lodge in Ward 12 of Unit 4 (Montevideo). People detained in this quarter are kept in solitary confinement 24/7, in cells of 2m2. They cannot receive food from their relatives and have the right to see them only a few minutes once a month, and are not allowed physical contact.
Currently, about 30 people are being held in this quarter, although the original intention of the INR was to imprison a very limited number of detainees, those sentenced only for kidnapping. This establishment is contrary to the Penitentiary Law, which does not provide for the possibility of isolating an inmate permanently.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs and the National Preventive Mechanism have filed a complaint, but this did not result in the closure of Ward 12 or the modification of its plan to comply with the laws and / or regulations in force.