Overcrowding in prisons degrades the situation of detainees and fertilizes the control of the facilities by criminal gangs that stage riots with mass murders, as happened in Ecuador in 2021.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) complained about the abandonment Ecuador's prisons suffered for years. During this time, riots caused the death of 316 detainees in 2021. Therefore, IACHR advocated for new prison and criminal policies in that country, in a report released on March 2022.
The persistent prison crisis "is characterized by unprecedented high levels of violence and corruption within prisons, and responds to the state's abandonment for years of the penitentiary system, as well as the absence of a comprehensive criminal policy," the IACHR’s text states.
It recalled that in 2021 "a total of 316 people deprived of liberty lost their lives in state custody, and hundreds were injured in a series of attacks carried out by the same people detained."
That figure "represents an increase of 587% compared to 2020, when only 46 deaths were recorded. Most of the deceased were young people who were in pretrial detention accused of minor crimes, and some even already had the release paper."
In February last year, near-simultaneous riots in four prisons in the country, with very violent clashes between groups of prisoners, resulted in 79 deaths. In July, similar events led to the deaths of 22 other people.
On September 28, the largest prison massacre in the history of the country took place, in the Littoral Penitentiary, nearby the city of Guayaquil (southwest), in which 119 inmates were killed and another 80 were injured.
In the same prison, a new massacre took place on 12 November, in which 68 detainees were killed and 25 others were injured.
President Guillermo Lasso decreed a state of emergency in all 36 prisons in the country, where some 39,000 detainees were there in 2021. Remember that Ecuador is a country of 256,370 square kilometers and 18 million inhabitants.
Those killed in the disputes fell victim to gunfire, grenade or knives. In almost all the roughhouses there were decapitated prisoners. The control of several prisons has been in the hands of criminal gangs for years, which include groups of prisoners who control them as their own land.
The IACHR visited the country in December 2021 and produced the report "Situation of Persons Deprived of Liberty in Ecuador," which it the one released last March.
As the main cause of this violence, the IACHR identified "the absence of effective control by the State in the centers where the most serious acts of violence occurred. There the result was the intra-prison control being carried out by the detainees themselves."
The report highlighted "the existence [in the Country] of a policy that privileges incarceration as a measure to solve citizen security problems, resulting in an exponential increase in incarceration in recent years."
Likewise, "excessive use of pretrial detention", legal and administrative obstacles to granting benefits and pardons, and the impossibility of guaranteeing social reintegration to detainees.
The prisons’ institutional system is weakened by the decrease in its budget, lack of technical and custody personnel, and absence of prison policy, the inter-American organization acknowledged.
So report talks on "the deplorable conditions of detention as a result of overcrowding; lack of separation between convicted and prosecuted persons; poor infrastructure; negligent medical care, and inadequate food."
"The risks that women run of being victims of violence (which) are exacerbated by the proximity between the centers of deprivation of liberty for women and men are highlighted," it said.
The IACHR recommends, "Implementing a comprehensive and transversal criminal and penitentiary policy, with effective actions to prevent and control all types of violence; and to reduce the population in prisons with the application of pretrial detention on an exceptional basis."
Lasso decreed last February new conditions to pardon detainees, and the release of at least 5,000 of those detained in Ecuadorian prisons is expected.
The IACHR also called for "guaranteeing the social reintegration of persons deprived of liberty. Likewise, the State is called upon to guarantee the institutional strengthening of the penitentiary regime and to ensure conditions of detention compatible with human dignity."
These measures "must take into account the gender perspective and a look at historical discrimination against groups in vulnerable situations," the IACHR said, and called for "a common travel sheet" in the prison services, so to "include the participation of detainees, family members, and civil society organizations."
Photo. Overcrowded prisons degrade the situation of detainees and fertilizes the control of the facilities by criminal gangs that lead riots with mass murders, as happened in Ecuador in 2021. © Victoria Hazou/ONU