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Prisons of Crime

Published on

August 2022

Latin America prisons are havens of crime and corruption that reflect the societies in which they exist

People are in street clothes. Cigarettes, drugs and alcohol are widely available. Parties with women visitors are common. Knives are also ubiquitous and there are even a number of guns.

This is not a club but rather a Colombian prison, as depicted in the Netflix series Surviving Pablo Escobar: Alias JJ, about the life in prison of a drug trafficker. Unfortunately, it is a very common scene in Latin America and not simply a dramatic creation.

From prisons, many inmates continue a life of crime for multiple reasons. First, to survive in a prison it is essential to have a group to which you belong. Group affiliation affords protection in a dangerous place. The group to which one belongs is often the same gang to which the prisoner belonged prior to entering the prison. (Even if one wanted to leave a gang they would possibly end up dead as many groups will kill members who attempt to leave.)

Moreover, for a group and its individuals to survive in a prison they need money and crime is the only way to earn this money. As Surviving Pablo Escobar and studies demonstrate, rival groups bribe guards for favors. If one group does not have the money to bribe guards, it is possible another group will bribe the guards to allow attacks to weaken a rival group. In the case one group weakens, the chance that members of this group will defect to another group heightens. Defectors can receive money and protection.

Space is a premium in Latin America's prisons and many are not able to have their own living spaces

Money is also necessary to keep a group’s members satisfied. Money allows for a gang to keep members in prison on a salary from which members can support families outside of prison. It also keeps members quiet. As Surviving Pablo Escobar shows, group members are often tempted with plea deals to rat on their leaders and organizations that may allow for arrests or busts of gang caletas, or hideouts where drugs and money are stashed. Even for leaders already in jail, the prospect of an inmate speaking to authorities could lengthen their sentence or lead to extradition to the United States. Gang leaders fear extradition to the United States because they would lose their spot as a leader within the prison and the protections and benefits it affords. Additionally, it is much harder to escape from a U.S. prison, meaning that a sentence in the United States means it will be carried out – leaving the prisoner with little hope for a life outside of prison. (Gang leaders are often criminally indicted in the United States because of drug trafficking crimes in which they are involved that occur in the United States.)

Prisons in Latin America are also very overcrowded. The overcrowding increases the need for money. Money can buy one a better cell as one can bribe both guards and pay one’s gang members to protect this privilege. (The overcrowding is due partly to the slow pace of justice; many prisoners are awaiting trial and not given bail. Some can stay in prisons for years before their trial. Moreover, in many countries people are given prison sentences for possession and small-scale selling of drugs.)

From prison gangs order kidnappings, extortions and manage drug trafficking routes in coordination with their gang members outside the prison. Even if cell phones are officially banned, their use is ubiquitous thanks to the corruption of guards. Both visitors and guards help smuggle the cash, phones and other contraband into prisons.

Drugs and other contraband are frequently smuggled into prisons

The lines between the prison and outside world are thus blurred. Partly for this reason, prisons sadly do not resocialize inmates for a crime-free life after prison. Indeed, recidivism is high in many Latin American nations. In Colombia, the rate of recidivism is above 20 percent while Argentina is 30 percent. Other nations in the region have, in the last ten years, registered rates as high as 50 percent. Moreover, the high recidivism rates only capture those caught and returned to prison, meaning the number of those who continue a life in crime is higher than the recidivism rate.

The challenges of resocialization are well-illustrated in Surviving Pablo Escobar. The prison director creates a program of resocialization where the inmates can start their own businesses and sell goods and services to each other. The idea is to train the inmates in trades they can then use once they leave prison and thus leave a life of delinquency. The prison director warns, however, that if the rival gangs within the prison fight or smuggle illicit goods into the prison he will close the businesses.

To operate the businesses, prisoners need to import goods from outside the prison. The importation of goods is a way for prisoners to smuggle drugs and weapons into the prison. After promoting the resocialization program in the media, the prison director ultimately closes all the businesses because of the smuggling and conflict between rival gangs.

What is the ultimate point of the prisons if the prisoners simply continue committing crimes and the prisons are unsafe spaces? In Ecuador in 2021 and Mexico in 2022, rival gangs within prisons have had major conflicts in prisons that leave dozens killed and injured. The continuing rivalries and corruption in prisons is deadly. Prisons in many parts of Latin America have been holding cells for criminals that allow governments to put on a crime-fighting façade while not tackling the issues that lead to criminality in the first place – poverty, demand for drugs in both wealthy countries and Latin America itself, the illegality of drugs, the flow of weapons from the United States, a culture of violence from years of drug wars and a media that highlights violence, amongst over deeply-rooted issues. Until these issues are solved, the prisons of Latin America serve not as a band aid to solve crime but are rather reused, bloody and infected bandages that only worsen a society’s deteriorating condition.

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