Date of the report
Author(s)Rolando Arbusún Rodríguez / Traslator: Briane Laruy / Reviewer: Ako Allan Agbor

The penitentiary system

Organisation of the penitentiary system

The political institution responsible for the penitentiary system is the Ministry of the Interior.

The organization that administers it directly is the National Rehabilitation Institute (INR), created by the 2010 Finance Act (Law No. 18.719). The INR directs the 29 prison units that make up the system.

To date, and despite the proposed laws introduced in Parliament, no organic law establishing the INR as a decentralized service of the State has been promulgated. For this reason, the system is organized in accordance with the provisions of Decree-Law No. 14.470 of 1975, dating from the period of civil and military dictatorship. To date, no regulation has been adopted to replace it.

Penitentiary units are classified as:

  • Maximum security units;
  • Medium security units;
  • Units with minimum security and maximum confidence.

The Admission, Diagnosis and Assignment Unit, the "gateway" of the system, is in charge of the reception of male senior prisoners, their classification and their assignment in the different units. In practice, it turns out that the National Transfer Council, depending on the places available in the different units, dictates the assignment.

The only unit to exclusively receive sentenced male prisoners is Unit 6 (Punta de Rieles), with a capacity of 650 people. The main unit for receiving female prisoners is Unit 5, in which the accused and convicted are not separated. Unit 9, located in the same building as Unit 5, accommodates women with young children, but there is not enough accommodation.

All Maximum and Medium Security Units have surveillance perimeters controlled by soldiers from the Ministry of Defence.

In the case of minors in conflict with the criminal law, there is only one centre for teenage girls and one centre for boys aged 14 to 15. The remaining 12 centres accommodate boys aged 15 to 18 who are subject to preventive and custodial measures. In general, it equally accommodates some major inmates (around 100 on average). It is often the case where a minor escapes from the institution, is sentenced to an adult prison sentence, and then has to return to the juvenile centre in order to finish serving the sentence for the crime committed as a minor. Prison experts have recommended on many occasions the establishment of an intermediate penal system between the juvenile system and the adult penitentiary system, but so far government authorities have not heard them.

No units are reserved for prisoners with severe psychiatric disorders. In fact, people who are declared criminally irresponsible do not enter the penal system.

A process of reforms, still in progress and presenting significant difficulties, was launched in 2010, the fruit of a multi-party agreement. One of these reforms allows, for the first time in the country's prison history, to bring all prisons together in one institution: the INR. In addition, this reform process includes among its objectives the "depoliciarization" of prisons and the creation of a new type of prison officials - penitentiary operators - with civilian status and training neither police nor military. This process is still on-going and is lagging behind the original objectives. Many prison officials show their refusal, and sometimes obstruct the implementation of these reforms, especially police personnel.

Uruguay has 29 penitentiary units:

  • 1 unit of admission, diagnosis and assignment
  • 1 Maximum security unit: Unit 3 (San José Department, 53 km from Montevideo)
  • 9 medium security units:
  • Unit 4- known as COMCAR (located in Montevideo, the largest in the country). It contains: • 1 section of very high security, section 12, which contains the most strict and most illegal solitary confinement, • 3 high security sectors, • 3 middle security sectors, • 2 progressive sectors, • 2 special security regimes for sex offenders and police or law enforcement personnel.
  • Units 5 and 9 (females) (Montevideo),
  • Unit 6,
  • Unit 7,
  • Unit 8,
  • Unit 10,
  • Unit 12,
  • Unit 13.
  • 18 units with minimal security and maximum confidence: Units 2, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29.

The different units, with a few exceptions, are old buildings that have been renovated or refurbished. Prisons inside the country date back to the end of the nineteenth century - beginning of the twentieth century, which is why their buildings present various problems of construction and security. Almost all are located in the centre of the different cities or in the near surroundings.

A new penitentiary facility will be inaugurated at the end of 2017 in Punta Rieles, built based on a model of public-private partnership (PPP). The design of the project was entrusted to Spanish companies and the construction of the establishment to the Uruguayan company Stiler S.A. The total cost is 90 million US dollars. This detention centre will become the second largest in the country, with a capacity of 1 960 inmates. A consortium of three companies will manage the meal, cleaning, and laundry services at a cost of US $ 23 per day per prisoner

All prison staff - police officers and penitentiary operators - depend, through the National Rehabilitation Institute (INR), on the Ministry of the Interior.

In nearly 40% of the units, officials of the Ministry of Public Health provide medical care.

According to the figures of the Office of Planning and Budget of the President of the Republic, 2,686 officials worked at the INR at the end of 2016. Of these, 893 are budgeted posts, 120 are temporary, 1,659 are police officers, 5 are in contract with the public service and 9 are in contract with the police.

62% are police officers and 38% belong to the INR and have studied at the Prison Training Centre.

The number of prison officials is inadequate in all areas of the penitentiary system. In general, working conditions are inadequate, which affects the treatment of detainees.

Despite the development of skill training programs for police officers and operators, training remains insufficient. One of the main difficulties is admission criteria, because the level of education required is minimal; for example, it is not even mandatory to hold a baccalaureate.

In theory, the management of daily life and discipline are not entrusted to prisoners. However, in large and complex prisons, such as Unit 3 and Unit 4, there are groups of detainees who oppressively dominate other prisoners and act with the silent complicity of the authorities1.

In July 2017, following the Amparo appeal presented by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs, eight prisoners from Ward 8 of Unit 4 were transferred to other units and sectors because they were undernourished, a consequence of intimidation by other detainees that prevented them from accessing their food rations.


  1. Parliamentary Commissioner for Penitentiary Affairs, “Annual Reports-2016”, p.16