Argentina, because of its federal system of government, has not one but several systems of prison administration--a federal system as well as a number of provincial prison systems. The majority of Argentine inmates, however, are not held within any of the country's prisons. Instead, according to 1996 estimates from the Ministry of Justice, some 28 to 31 thousand of the country's roughly 55 to 58 thousand inmates are confined in police lockups.

The federal prison system (Servicio Penitenciario Federal) and the Buenos Aires provisional prison system are the country's largest prison systems. As of 1996, federal prisons held more than 6,000 inmates.

In July 1996, a new national prisons law went into effect, the ley de ejecución de la pena privativa de la libertad (ley 24.660). The law establishes a system of judicial monitoring of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. The treatment of pretrial detainees (procesados) is, however, regulated by a different set of rules, also adopted in 1996, the reglamento general de procesados.

In an encouraging step, the post of the prisons ombudsman (Procurador Penitenciario) was created in 1993. The ombudsman's task is to monitor the country's prisons to ensure that prisoners' rights are respected and that prison conditions meet minimum legal standards. To this end, he and his staff visit prisons, receive complaints of abuse, and make recommendations for reform.

The following links provide further information on prisons in Argentina:


The following link provides information on prisons in Belize:


The following are links to information relating to Bolivian prisons:


Prison conditions throughout Brazil continued to violate international standards in 1998. The primary violations involved official
São Paulo detention cell
Prisoners crowded into a São Paulo detention cell
violence directed against detainees or complicity in prisoner-against-prisoner violence; overcrowding; unsanitary conditions; and lack of access to recreation, education and other benefits. Substandard conditions were exacerbated in police precinct lock-ups, where prisoners were held for months and even years. In São Paulo, some 30,000 detainees were held in precincts in 1998, which according to the most generous official estimates had capacity for fewer than 16,000.

The appalling conditions in Brazil’s penal facilities continued to provoke riots and rebellions, several of which resulted in the loss of life. After a record year of riots (195 in São Paulo’s lockups and jails alone in 1997), the national prison census for 1997—released and then recalled in early 1998—demonstrated a significant growth in inmate numbers and a prison capacity deficit of 96,010. This deficit (2.3 persons were maintained in detention for every space in the prison system) forced many states to intensify their use of temporary police holding cells as long-term detention centers. The lack of infrastructure, extreme overcrowding and endemic violence in both police lockups and the regular prison system triggered riots throughout the year, several of which were controlled with excessive, often deadly force.

On December 24, 1997, a group of twenty-three prisoners at the Paulo Sarasate prison (Instituto Penal Paulo Sarasate, IPPS) in Ceará took three representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and one police lieutenant hostage and initiated a standoff that lasted some twenty-five hours. After much negotiation—including the release of the police lieutenant but not the civilians—the prisoners and hostages were allowed to flee in four vehicles provided by the police. Shortly after the cars exited the prison, the police opened fire on them, killing seven prisoners and wounding two hostages with gunfire. Surviving prisoners and hostages told Human Rights Watch that the police summarily executed at least two prisoners after they had surrendered.

On February 5, 1998, a group of approximately thirty prisoners attempted to escape from the João Chaves prison in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. The police responded to the escape by gunning down six apparently unarmed prisoners, some of whom received as many as fourteen shots, all from behind. Three days later, police recaptured escapee Moisaniel Oliveira da Silva, killing him with a single shot to the temple at point-blank range.

The João Chaves prison had been the subject of reports of extreme prisoner-on-prisoner violence, allegedly promoted or at least tolerated by authorities. Between March 1997 and January 1998, ten prisoners were killed by other inmates. In at least two of these cases, authorities were made aware of the threats facing the endangered prisoners yet failed to take steps to prevent the killings. Prisoner-on-prisoner abuse claimed the lives of dozens of others in 1998. In January 1998, seven inmates were killed in a riot in the state of Espirito Santo. A two-day rebellion at the São José prison in Belém, Pará state ended with the death of three prisoners, whom authorities contended had been killed by other detainees. On May 29, 1998, at least twenty-two prisoners died in a gang clash at the Barreto Campelo prison in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.

Finally, more than six years after the 1992 massacre at Carandiru prison in which 111 prisoners were killed, no one has been brought to trial, although the case has been transferred from the military to the ordinary courts. In March 1998, the ordinary courts ordered eighty-five of the accused police officers to stand trial.

ILANUD, a United Nations criminal justice agency, has established an office in São Paulo, Brazil, which has conducted a number of studies on prison-related topics there.

Click here for past information on prison conditions in Brazil.

The following are links to news articles relating to Brazil's prisons, jails, and police lock-ups (note that some are in Portuguese or Spanish):

Other sources of information on Brazilian prisons:


Chile's Ministry of Justice informed Human Rights Watch that the country's prison held a total of 25,428 inmates in August 1998. During the first eight months of the year, nineteen prisoners were reported to have died violently.


Prison conditions in Colombia remained grim in 1998, especially for individuals believed to occupy middle to lower-level positions within insurgent organizations. While leaders were provided with virtual suites within maximum security facilities and access to foods and medicines of their choosing, rank-and-file prisoners lived in severely overcrowded cell blocks where acts of violence were common along with chronic shortages of food, water, and medical care. In a bloody incident that took place in April, fifteen inmates were killed in a gang clash in La Picota prison south of Bogotá.

According to the National Penitentiary and Jail Institute, which runs Colombia’s prisons, 49 percent of prisoners overall had not yet been convicted of any crime. Although Colombia’'s prisons were built to hold about 32,000 prisoners, the actual population was well over 43,000 in 1998.

Prisoners cited severe overcrowding, lack of medical care, and isolation as the reasons behind a series of coordinated protests that began in January 1997 and continued through June. In the Valledupar prison, in Cesar, armed inmates and imprisoned members of the ELN killed four prison guards and took sixteen other people hostage, including a fourteen-year-old girl, in April 1997, before agreeing to surrender to authorities and releasing the hostages unharmed.

The following are links to newspaper articles relating to Colombia's prisons, jails, and police lock-ups (note that they are primarily in Spanish):


According to the Ministry of Justice, Costa Rican prisons confined a total of 5,247 inmates in August 1998, including 333 women. An additional 523 persons were serving sentences in semi-institutional facilities, while 357 were serving sentences of community service. In contrast to the situation in much of Latin America, in Costa Rica the large majority of inmates have been convicted and sentenced.

Costa Rica has fourteen closed prisons (nivel institutional), the largest of which is CAI La Reforma, located west of San José. In August 1998, La Reforma held 1,930 inmates. Eleven inmates were reportly killed at La Reforma during 1998, making it the most violent prison in the country.

The following are links to information on Costa Rican prisons (note that they are all in Spanish):


Whether held for political or common crimes, inmates endure severe hardships in Cuba’'s prisons. Most prisoners face malnourishment on the prison diet and suffer in overcrowded cells without sufficient medical attention. Prison authorities insist that all detainees participate in politically oriented reeducation sessions, such as chanting "Long live Fidel" or "Socialism or Death," or face punitive measures including beatings and solitary confinement. Prison guards in men’s facilities rely on "prisoners’ councils" (consejos de reclusos) to maintain internal discipline with beatings and control over the meager food rations. Prison authorities restrict inmates’ access to receiving religious guidance, in some cases with interrogations about their religious beliefs. In some prisons, pre-trial detainees are held together with convicts and minors with adults. Minors also risk indefinite detention in juvenile facilities.

Cuba’'s confinement of nonviolent political prisoners with prisoners convicted of violent crimes is degrading and dangerous. Guards impose undue restrictions on political prisoners’ visits with family members. Prison authorities have also punished political prisoners who denounced prison abuses or failed to participate in political reeducation or wear prison uniforms.

Many Cuban political prisoners have spent excessive periods in pretrial detention, often in isolation cells. Following conviction, they have faced additional punitive periods in solitary confinement. Police or prison guards often heightened the punitive nature of solitary confinement with additional sensory deprivation, by darkening cells, removing clothing, or restricting food and water. The punitive and intimidatory measures against political prisoners that caused severe pain and suffering and the retaliations against those who denounced abuses violated Cuba’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1995.

In early 1998, Guantánamo Provincial Prison authorities reportedly ordered beatings of political prisoners who denounced prison conditions, including Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, Jorge Luis García Pérez (also known as Antúnez), Francisco Herodes Díaz Echemendía, and Orosman Betancourt Dexidor. On April 11, 1998, Capt. Hermés Hernández and Lt. René Orlando allegedly beat severely Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, a journalist serving a six-year sentence for contempt for authority at the Ariza prison in Cienfuegos. In a positive step, Cuban military prosecutors accused both officers of wrongdoing in early May, but as of October 1998, it remained unclear whether the two had been arrested or tried. On April 5, 1998, common prisoners at the Canaleta Prison in Matanzas beat Jorge Luis Cruz Arancibia. Prison authorities reportedly refused to provide Cruz Arancibia with medical care for his injuries.

Cuba maintained its extensive system of prison agricultural camps and ran clothing assembly, construction, furniture, and other factories at its prisons. Cuba’s insistence that some political prisoners participate in work programs and its inappropriate pressuring of inmates to work without pay in inhuman conditions violated international labor and prison rights standards.

The Cuban government bars regular access to its prisons by domestic and international human rights and humanitarian monitors. The government last permitted the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which visits prisoners in custody for political and security offenses, to conduct prison visits in Cuba in 1989. The Cuban government has not allowed Human Rights Watch to return to Cuba since 1995. Cuba never allowed the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cuba to enter the country.

The following links provide information on Cuban prisons:


A backlog of criminal cases left the prisons extremely overcrowded in 1997, with some 85 percent of the Dominican prison population of approximately 12,000 prisoners having never been tried. Prisoners routinely struggle to find sufficient nutrition and a place to sleep, live in filthy, dangerous conditions, and receive insufficient medical care. The police and military authorities charged with running the country's prisons receive no specialized training.

The difficult conditions in the country's prisons has led to several riots. On June 5, 1997, detainees at the Mao prison rioted in protest of poor conditions and corruption, including the reported selling of infirmary cells to healthy prisoners for up to 3,000 pesos (U.S. $231). After a few days of negotiations, police stormed the prison, injuring dozens of detainees. Police wounded sixteen-year-old Jorge Santiago Contreras, who was confined to an isolation cell and unarmed, with a shotgun blast. Another youth, seventeen-year-old Edward Moíses Sí Peña, was shot in the back.

Stunning travesties of justice resulted from the judicial system's weaknesses, prevalent corruption, and transfers of detainees far from their homes, which prohibited most prisoners from genuine access to lawyers and the courts. Scores of detainees spent months and years in Dominican prisons without being tried or found guilty of any crime. Prisoners who had been confined to Dominican prisons for exceptionally long periods without trial included: Zenóm Ramírez Ogando, who was detained in 1987 but never sentenced (as of mid-1997, his trial for homicide remained in the investigation phase); Rafael Sosa Félix, who was detained without trial since April 1991; Marino de la Rosa Beltrén, who was detained in 1991 without charge; and Valentín Almonte y Almonte, who was arrested in March 1994 but whose case file had been lost. Condemned prisoners faced additional impediments. Although a court ordered liberty for Rafael Orlando Caminero Guerrero on April 26, 1991, when he completed his ninety-day sentence in La Victoria for painting a stolen car, authorities had failed to free him as of August 1997. Ramón de la Rosa Peguero was condemned to six months in La Victoria and a 1,500 peso ($115) fine in March 1995. He completed his time in September 1995 and paid his fine but, as of mid-1997, still awaited a judicial order freeing him.

Dominican authorities failed to provide minors, the prison system's most vulnerable population, with appropriate care. In violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty ratified by the Dominican Republic, the government confined hundreds of minors, both convicts and those in preventive detention, in adult prisons, and neglected to provide them with sufficient protection, education, or rehabilitation.


Ecuador's prison authorities, the Dirección Nacional de Rehabilitación Social, reported that in early 1998 the country's prisons held some 9,439 inmates, 4,098 more than they were designed to hold. Over 40 percent of these prisoners were held for drug crimes.


The following are links to newspaper articles relating to El Salvadoran prisons (note that they are in Spanish):


The following are links to newspaper articles relating to Guatemalan prisons (note that they are all in Spanish):


Haiti’s prisons remained overcrowded in 1998. Approximately 80 percent of Haiti’s inmates were in pre-trial detention. The U.N./OAS mission noted that the National Penitentiary Administration (Administration Pénitentiaire Nationale), which became part of the HNP in 1997, had sanctioned few prison guards for mistreating prisoners. Overcrowding aggravated the poor physical conditions for prisoners and contributed to cases of physical and sexual abuse among prisoners, including those held in the Fort National facility for women and minors.

The following links provide further information on Haiti's prisons:

[More on prisons in Latin America and the Caribbean]

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