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Press briefing note - Prisons in Latin America

17 February 2012

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva

OHCHR deeply regrets the loss of more than 350 lives in Wednesday’s tragic fire in the Comayagua prison in Honduras, and fully supports the establishment of a thorough independent investigation into the causes of the fire and into whether the conditions at the prison contributed to the enormous loss of life. The prison, which was reportedly designed to hold 250 detainees, was apparently housing more than 800 inmates when the fire broke out.

We urge the Government to ensure that the families of all those held in the Comayagua prison at the time of the fire are provided full information on the situation of their relatives without any further delay.

We also call on the Government to take urgent steps to avoid a repetition of this incident, in line with recommendations received from international and regional human rights organizations, including the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This week’s fire is the third such incident resulting in multiple deaths in a Honduran prison in the past decade.

The Inter-American Commission has called on the Honduran government to investigate the deaths of the prisoners in order to determine the responsibilities and to sanction those responsible. It also urged the state to adopt all necessary measures to avoid similar events reoccurring, and referred to a case that is already pending before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, concerning the deaths of 107 detainees in a prison in San Pedro Sula in 2004. In its merits report for that case, the Commission already concluded that these deaths were the result of a series of structural deficiencies, which were known by the authorities, and which were neither attended to nor corrected in a timely manner.

A year earlier, in April 2003, 66 inmates were killed in the prison in El Porvenir, as well as two women and a girl who were visiting their relatives.

OHCHR is concerned that the problems affecting prisons are by no means confined to Honduras. In recent weeks there has been a wave of violence in prisons across Latin America, resulting in loss of lives in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, and Chile. Last year five young inmates lost their lives and many others were injured during a fire in a juvenile detention centre in Panama.

These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence in the region, which is a direct consequence of – or aggravated by – a range of endemic problems including chronic prison overcrowding, the lack of access to basic services such as adequate floor space, potable water, food, health care, and lack of basic sanitary and hygienic standards. Such conditions are exacerbated by judicial delays and excessive resort to pre-trial detention.

Prison conditions across Latin America have been repeatedly criticized in reports by UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures mandate holders, as well as in the context of the Universal Periodic Review. We urge the Governments of the region to act on these recommendations, to prevent further tragedies from occurring.

States have an obligation to ensure that conditions of detention are compatible with the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. All individuals deprived of their liberty have the right to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, as recognized by international human rights instruments.

The Human Rights Committee’s guidelines on the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty*, makes it clear that humane treatment is a basic universal standard which cannot depend entirely on material resources, and which must be applied without discrimination.

In addition to the recent deaths of prisoners across the region, our Regional Office in Chile has expressed concern about a video that has emerged showing a handcuffed female prisoner who had just given birth in Brazil, in clear contravention of international human rights standards.

All States should adopt urgent measures to ensure that conditions of detention comply with international human rights standards. Such measures should include, among others, establishing impartial mechanisms for inspecting and visiting places of detention and confinement. None of the countries in the South America region has established a National Preventive Mechanism for the prevention of torture as required by the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). OHCHR is encouraging States that have not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to do so, and urging State Parties to the Optional Protocol to establish a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) as a question of priority.

Although Honduras has a National Preventive Mechanism, called CONAPREV, the Government has not yet provided it with sufficient funds for the accomplishment of its crucial functions.

Prisons all across the region have a tendency to be chronically overcrowded. In addition to this week’s fire in Honduras, other recent cases of concern include:

Argentina: A detainee died on 27 January after being stabbed by another prisoner at the Capayán jail in the province of Catamarca, northern Argentina. In a separate incident, on 29 January, a 25-year-old prisoner died after reportedly receiving 30 blows to the head from guards in Unit 46 of the San Martín Complex of the Buenos Aires Penitentiary Service.

Brazil: A three-minute video of a handcuffed female prisoner who had just given birth has made waves in Brazil. The 32-year-old woman had been held in preventive detention since November on charges of shoplifting dolls in Sao Paulo. The video has brought renewed focus on the issue of the use of handcuffs during birth and post-partum in the State of Sao Paulo – allegations that have been denied by State officials.

Chile: On 29 January, a 25-year-old prisoner in preventive detention was shot in the head by a guard when trying to escape from the Talagante prison near Santiago, which led to a prison riot. And in early February, an outbreak of hantavirus – a form of hemorrhagic fever spread by rodents – killed two inmates and affected several others at El Manzano prison.

El Salvador: On 19 November 2011, four inmates in the Quezaltepeque prison in San Salvador, were murdered in a fight among the prisoners.

Panama: On 9 January 2011, five teenagers, aged between 15 and 17, died and many others remained injured as a consequence of a fire in a juvenile detention centre in Tocumen, Panama, while reportedly the police stood by or fired tear gas canisters inside the burning prison. A similar event took place on 20 June 2011, resulting in 20 teenagers injured.

Uruguay: Three inmates died in a fire at the Comcar prison near Montevideo on 29 January this year, which allegedly occurred as a result of inter-prisoner violence.

Venezuela: On 25 January, two prisoners died as a result of prisoner-on-prisoner violence during a riot in the National Penitentiary of Maracaibo.

ENDS

*See the Human Rights Committee´s General Comment No 21, which provides guidelines on the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty.

For more information or media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org).

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