Press Release

IACHR Presents Report on the Human Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas

May 10, 2012

Washington, D.C. - Since its creation more than half a century ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has devoted particular attention to the grave situation of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas, and it has found that respect for their human rights is one of the main challenges faced in the region. In this context, the IACHR today publishes its Report on the Human Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, which identifies the fundamental problems that have been observed in the region's prisons.

The report identifies the following as the most serious and widespread problems in prisons and other incarceration facilities in the region: overcrowding and overpopulation; the deficient conditions of confinement, both physical conditions and the lack of basic services; the high incidence of prison violence and the lack of effective control by the authorities; the use of torture in the context of criminal investigations, and the excessive use of force by those in charge of security at prisons; the excessive use of preventive detention, which has direct repercussions on prison overpopulation; the lack of effective means for protecting vulnerable groups; the lack of work and educational programs, and the lack of transparency in the mechanisms of access to these programs; and corruption and the lack of transparency in prison management.

The lack of effective control by the State at various prisons in the region leads to serious situations that jeopardize the life and physical integrity of inmates. Such situations include, for example, high rates of prison violence, the planning and realization of criminal acts from prisons, and "self-government" or "shared government" regimes, which are also a product of the endemic corruption in many prison systems.

The Inter-American Commission considers that this reality is the result of decades of neglect of the prison problem by successive governments in the region, along with the apathy of societies, which traditionally have preferred ignoring the issue. Accordingly, detention centers have become areas that go unmonitored and lack oversight, in which arbitrariness and corruption have prevailed. The nature of this situation points to the existence of serious structural shortcomings that gravely impair non-derogable human rights, such as the right to life and to humane treatment of inmates. Moreover, this situation prevents penalties involving deprivation of liberty from meeting their essential aim as established in the American Convention on Human Rights: the reform and social readaptation of convicts.

In terms of the right to life, the report looks at deaths perpetrated by State agents, those resulting from prison violence, and those that stem from the lack of prevention and timely actions of the authorities. The IACHR notes that most prison fires, regardless of what may have initially caused them, have occurred in overpopulated prisons where facilities are in a state of disrepair and where there were no mechanisms or protocols for dealing with these situations, and/or in circumstances in which the authorities acted with manifest negligence in controlling the emergency.

As regards the right to humane treatment, the report notes that most acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment perpetrated against individuals in State custody take place during the arrest and first hours of criminal investigation. Among the main causes for the persistence of this practice, the report identifies the existence of inherited institutional practices and a culture of violence firmly rooted in the security forces of the State; impunity; the lack of funding, adequate equipment, and technical training of security forces; the State's repressive responses, such as "iron fist" or "zero tolerance" policies; and the granting of probative value to confessions and information obtained through torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The report emphasizes that any expectation of personal rehabilitation and reintegration into society is impossible in correctional systems in which systematic torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of inmates by the authorities themselves occur; in which high rates of prison violence are reported; in which there are prisons where the actual control of internal security is exercised by the prisoners themselves and not the competent authorities; and in which the State does not provide the minimum space, nourishment, sanitation, and medical attention. One of the most serious and widespread problems in the region is precisely the lack of public policies that promote the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of persons who have been deprived of their liberty. In this regard, the fact that a State's prison population is considerably young makes it all the more necessary to carry out effective rehabilitation policies that include opportunities for study and work, because this is a population of people who could have a productive life ahead of them. If this is not done, that population runs the risk of remaining in a cycle of social exclusion and criminal recidivism.

In this regard, the report is based on the fundamental idea that respect for the basic rights of persons deprived of liberty is not in conflict with the aims of citizen security; rather, to the contrary, prison systems that function as true rehabilitation mechanisms would help prevent crime and violence and thus help achieve citizen security.

This report has been published thanks to the support of the OAS Spain Fund.

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.


No. 45/12