The country has the third largest prison population on the South American continent.
Graciela Dubrez is the president of the Argentinian section of the International Prison Observatory (OIP-SA). We asked her three questions.
Cases of mistreatment or torture don't come out: the system filters complaints.
Prison Insider. What is the current situation in Argentina's penitentiary establishments?
Graciela Dubrez. The situation is dire: prisons have been overcrowded for a long time. Three inmates out of four sleep on the floor. There are six or seven of them in cells intended for two. Hygiene is poor and food is lacking. The prison administration is heavily corrupted, and packages sent by families to prisoners are often stolen before they even reach them. Agents lack training and don’t have the opportunity to unionize. As a result, they can’t make their demands heard unless they go on strike.
Each province has its own prison service and there’s a federal service. In 2019, there were reportedly 450 cases of torture within the federal prison system. And yet the secretary for prison affairs has been in office for 15 years. He’s responsible for these numbers but still hasn’t been fired. On top of all this, the federal prison administration claims that its establishments aren’t overcrowded.
In reality, prisoners who are supposed to be held in federal institutions are transferred to provincial prisons for people convicted of minor offenses. These establishments are overcrowded… and so the federal administration is hiding the real numbers.
To ensure that the rights of prisoners are respected, there should be someone dedicated to the daily recording of their concerns and needs in each prison. Currently, it’s the families who raise the alarm when their imprisoned loved ones run out of medicine, lack access to education or are victims of injustice. Prison officers only pass on the complaints of prisoners they get along with. Cases of mistreatment or torture don’t come out: the system filters complaints.
PI. Since the start of the pandemic, some inmates have rebelled, others have gone on a hunger strike. What are their complaints ?
GD. At first, the prisoners would follow the authorities’ decisions: they gave up seeing their families to prevent the virus from entering the prison. It was also required that staff take extra precautions, and yet they were the first to be infected. When the prisoners found out, they started to panic, even though they had never been in direct contact with the officers concerned. Those serving long sentences hoped they could get house arrest, since the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended sending as many prisoners home as possible. In this context of concern and demands for release, they pressured other prisoners to join in the rebellion. In Argentina, the most representative protest was that of the Devoto inmates1. They’re the ones who started the movement. Then, the negotiations began.
We’re currently at an impasse since justice, like in the rest of the country and the world, is on hold during quarantine. Only supervisors are working, but they can’t solve all the problems on their own.
Requests are handled on a case-by-case basis. This takes a very long time and by now, many prisoners should already have been placed under house arrest. The issue of electronic bracelets as a means of control must also be resolved: the whole system needs to be reviewed.
A mutiny broke out on 24 April at Villa Devoto, following the confirmation of a positive case among supervisors. Inmates were calling for emergency health measures and the implementation of release procedures. Some of them went up to the roofs, set fire to mattresses and took control of two floors. One of their banners read: “We refuse to die in prison.” The movement lasted nine hours.
PI. What does OIP Argentina recommend?
GD. We recommend first removing some powers from the prison administration. They should no longer be in charge of health. This competence should fall under the authority of the Ministry of Health, and education should be entrusted to the Ministry of Education. Each sentence execution judge should have a multidisciplinary team in charge of post-sentencing expertise so that it’s no longer managed solely by the prison administration. The latter is known to have refused a prisoner’s freedom for saying one wrong word.
On the other hand, the concept of the Patronato de Liberados, the body of the Ministry of Justice that drafts the expertises, should be reviewed. It should be called Oficina de ayuda al preso (Prisoner Aid Office), for example.
Prison security personnel should be trained in accordance with international recommendations. They’re currently following the directives of a prison administration that rules as if in a time of dictatorship. The country’s prison administration is a resurgence of the military era.
Finally, we recommend the systematic use of electronic bracelets for house arrest pending trial. It’s a way to save public money, avoid pre-trial detention and allow the defendants to stay with their relatives and continue their commitments before trial.
We’ve learned, however, that the previous government contracted out the supply of electronic bracelets and monitors to a private company. Up until December 2019, it was costing the State a million pesos a day. This also poses an ethical problem: when someone is deprived of their freedom, they’re at the disposal of the State and the courts. Prison management should be fully public.
Traduction and review: Ximena Vilaboa and Lina Moreno