Press Release

IACHR Recommends Adoption of a Comprehensive Public on Prisons in Uruguay

July 25, 2011

Washington, D.C., July 25, 2011—The Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) carried out a working visit to Uruguay on July 4-8, 2011. The delegation was made up of Commissioner Rodrigo Escobar and staff of the Executive Secretariat. The purpose of this working visit was to verify the general situation of Uruguay's prison system, identify the main problems it is facing, and issue concrete recommendations to the State. The Inter-American Commission thanks the Uruguayan State for its cooperation in the delegation's various activities, the unrestricted access to detention centers, and the high degree of organization shown during the visit.

The delegation met with authorities of the three branches of government and with a significant number of civil society organizations that monitor the situation of persons deprived of liberty. Also, the Office of the Rapporteur team visited the Punta de Rieles Central Penitentiary, the Santiago Vázquez Prison Complex (COMCAR), the Libertad Complex, the Cabildo Women's Facility, and the Colonia Berro Detention and Reeducation Complex, in which it visited the Sarandí, Ituzangó, and Ser homes.

The Office of the Rapporteur welcomes the State's institutional recognition of the grave prison crisis the country is facing, as well as the government's express manifestation that it considers the situation of the prison system as one of its main priorities. In this regard, the Office of the Rapporteur recognizes the openness and transparency shown by the various authorities with whom it met during the visit, who acknowledged and provided information on the principal challenges in prison management in Uruguay. In addition, the Office of the Rapporteur takes note of the State's political will to come up with a criminal justice policy designed to promote comprehensive policies toward crime and the social reintegration of criminal offenders.

Nevertheless, the IACHR Office of the Rapporteur observed serious shortcomings in the Uruguayan prison system, including overpopulation and overcrowding; inadequate and unhealthy infrastructure and sanitation conditions; the general use of pretrial detention; inadequate labor conditions and remuneration for prison guards and police officers who work in the facilities; the widespread consumption of illegal drugs by inmates and the existence of networks or mafias devoted to drug trafficking and the extortion of prisoners, in which prison staff is said to participate; the general lack of work and study programs for prisoners; and the lack of comprehensive public policies on the management of prisons.

Overcrowding in prison facilities is one of the most serious problems currently facing the Uruguayan prison system. According to official data, Uruguay’s prisons are at 129% of capacity, and some centers are at 200%. In this regard, the Inter-American Commission reiterates that the overcrowding of persons deprived of liberty in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

In addition, some prisons do not have the minimum conditions necessary to accommodate inmates. The Rapporteur observed that the infrastructure and sanitation and hygiene conditions at Modules 1, 2, and 4 at COMCAR are absolutely inadequate for housing human beings, and that they also constitute an unhealthy and inadequate environment for the security agents who have to work there. The IACHR recommends closing them.

The Office of the Rapporteur also saw the serious structural deficiencies at the Libertad Complex; at Hogar Ser, in Colonia Berro, where the structures were obviously designed for locking people up and not for reeducating or reintegrating juvenile offenders; and at the Cabildo women's prison—an ancient building, constructed in 1898, whose facilities are no longer suitable for housing people. The Rapporteur was especially struck by the housing conditions of those women located in the "basement" of the Cabildo facility. The IACHR welcomes the prison authorities’ plan to transfer the Cabildo inmates this year.

Another point of great concern to the Office of the Rapporteur is the widespread use of pretrial detention, and for periods of time that often exceed what is reasonable. In this regard, although the figures received from different sources vary, the delegation did observe that there is a constant, systematic practice of using pretrial detention automatically. According to official data, 65% of inmates are awaiting trial, and in the regional facilities, those in pretrial detention constitute 71.8% of the prison population. The IACHR recommends that the State of Uruguay carry out the necessary legal reforms to limit the use of preventive detention, especially in the case of nonviolent and less serious crimes, and turn more often to alternative or substitute measures that do not involve deprivation of liberty. But above all, the IACHR urges the State to promote a change in the established judicial culture and practice, one that produces a real paradigm shift in thinking about the appropriateness and need for pretrial detention.

On a different matter, the Rapporteur received information from the authorities indicating that prisons do not have enough security guards; that police agents' salaries do not adequately reflect the nature of their duties and the current cost of living in Uruguay; and that the conditions in which these agents works pose a risk to their health and expose them to significant stress. Further, the lack of adequate remuneration forces the agents who work in the facilities to perform other activities on their days off and makes them more vulnerable to receiving illicit funds from the inmates themselves or from third parties. The IACHR recommends that the State progressively substitute the police personnel assigned to serve in prisons with a specialized civilian corps of prison personnel, and attend to the work conditions of the agents responsible for running the prisons.

Finally, the Office of the Rapporteur observed that Uruguay currently has no comprehensive public policies on the operation of prisons. It therefore falls to the State, based on the provisions of Articles 1.1 and 2 of the American Convention, to adopt public policies that include both measures to be adopted immediately as well as long-term plans, programs, and projects. It is also up to the State to make its laws and criminal justice system compatible with personal liberty and the right to a fair trial established in international human rights treaties. This should be taken on as a State priority that does not depend on the greater or lesser interest of the government in power at any given time, or of public opinion makers. Rather, it should constitute a commitment that binds all branches of the government, the legislative and executive branches and the judiciary, as well as civil society, for the purposed of building a system based on human dignity, one that contributes to the betterment of society and the democratic rule of law.

This press release is accompanied by an annex, which contains preliminary observations on the visit.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 76/11