Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions were poor and inhuman in several facilities due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, inadequate medical care, inadequate socioeducational programming, and high levels of violence among inmates.
Physical Conditions: On November 20, the prison population was 13,021, reaching 128 percent of designed capacity. The situation in each of the 27 prisons varied greatly, with 13 prisons above 100 percent capacity, and five prisons above 120 percent designed capacity. Parliament’s special rapporteur on the prison system (special rapporteur) and the National Torture Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under the INDDHH each reported that overcrowding also affected specific sections of prisons with an average population below their full capacity. For example, inmates slept on the floor and had fewer social and educational activities. The special rapporteur stated 26 percent of inmates suffered from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and that 47 percent of inmates were improperly prepared for social integration after their release. According to the special rapporteur and the NPM, the worst prison conditions were in units with high overpopulation rates and the largest prisons.
Certain prisons lacked hygiene, sufficient access to water, sufficient or satisfactory food, and adequate socioeducational and labor activities. Prisoners sometimes spent 23 hours of the day in their cell, and several inmates remained in their cells for weeks or even months. Inmates were sometimes exposed to electrical, sanitary, and other risks due to poor infrastructure. In July a fire in a prison cell left six inmates injured, but the cause of the fire was unknown. As of November prison authorities had not identified the cause of the fire.
In their annual reports, the special rapporteur and the NPM reported a lack of, or difficulties accessing, medical care in prisons. Medical services did not always include preventive care and routine medical care. The lack of prison personnel limited the ability of inmates to have outside medical appointments. Inmates were transferred to new prisons without their medical records and medication prescriptions. Mental health services were not adequately available to tend to the population that required attention, monitoring, and treatment. Administrative delays sometimes affected the issuance of medications.
The NPM and the special rapporteur reported high levels of institutional and interpersonal violence in many prisons, particularly the larger facilities. As of September there were 20 homicides as a result of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, in addition to nine suicides. The homicide rate in prisons was 18 times higher than outside prison walls, while the suicide rate in prisons was four times higher. Shortages in personnel and basic elements of control, such as security cameras, made prevention, control, and the clarification of facts in security incidents difficult. Shortages of prison staff to securely transport and accompany inmates affected prisoners’ ability to participate in workshops, classes, sports, and labor-related activities.
The situation varied for female inmates, who made up 5 percent of the prison population. In mixed-gender prisons, prison authorities assigned women to some of the worst parts of prisons, leading to difficulties in access to food, private spaces, and visits with family members. In a purported effort to prevent conflicts among men, guards prevented women from using the prison yard, excluded them from a number of activities, and did not allow them to wear clothes they considered revealing during visits. There was no regular access to routine sexual and reproductive health services. Mothers in prison with their children lived in poorly designed facilities with security problems due to a lack of prisoner classification, health and environmental concerns, a lack of specialized services and facilities, and undefined and unclear policies for special-needs inmates. Research conducted by the Universidad de la Republica concluded that children detained with their mothers did not have access to proper nutrition.
The special rapporteur filed a number of corrective habeas corpus actions for different violations of prisoner rights ranging from the lack of access to education or health care to inhuman conditions of detention in specific prison modules. In May 2019 the rapporteur filed a habeas corpus action requesting the closure of two sections of a prison, in view of the inhuman detention conditions presented therein. On May 15, a judge ordered the closure of these sections as well as the implementation of a plan to reorganize the prison. The Ministry of Interior challenged the decision, but in August an appeals court ratified the lower court’s ruling.
Some juvenile offenders were imprisoned at age 17 and remained in prison for up to five years. The NPM reported the situation in juvenile detention centers varied greatly from center to center, reflecting a lack of consistent standards across the system. Prisons increased educational services, but they remained insufficient, providing only three to four hours per week for inmates. Security constraints at prison facilities often interfered with or altogether eliminated educational, recreational, and social activities for juvenile inmates. In some cases socioeducational programs were scarce, fragile, or nonexistent.
Physical conditions were deficient in juvenile facilities, including sites with crumbling infrastructure that was not designed for or conducive to rehabilitation activities. High turnover of staff and leadership in the juvenile prison system, as well as a lack of trained and specialized staff, were causes for concern.
In July 2019 the National Institute for Adolescent Social Inclusion reported there were 196 suicide attempts in juvenile detention facilities, although none were successful.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities established specific sanitary protocols in prisons, including restricting visits, temperature controls for anyone entering facilities, suspension of education activities, use of facemasks, distribution of cleaning products and sanitizing gel, and reserved sectors for potential quarantine needs. As of November only one case of COVID-19 was reported among inmates in adult prisons, and no cases in juvenile prisons.
An omnibus reform bill passed in July introduced security reforms including stronger sentencing for juvenile and adult offenders and restrictions on parole, early release and sentence-reduction mechanisms as well as changes to criminal procedure. The special rapporteur and the INDDHH expressed their concerns that measures adopted could contribute to further increase the already oversized prison population, affecting overcrowding and possibilities for rehabilitation. This law also makes work mandatory for convicted inmates.
Administration: Independent authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, local human rights groups, media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international bodies. The special rapporteur and the NPM were also allowed to monitor prisons.
Improvements: The Prisons Administration began restructuring one of the biggest and most violent prisons containing more than 3,000 inmates, subdividing it into five smaller subunits to provide more personalized service than before and improve rehabilitation conditions.
In an effort to improve sexual and reproductive rights of women in prison, authorities signed and implemented an agreement with a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) to conduct routine exams, such as pap smear tests, colposcopies, and mammograms, among others, on 100 percent of the female prison population within seven months. Authorities took further steps to strengthen programs for women imprisoned with children.
Inmates with psychiatric conditions were transferred to a module with better conditions than their previous accommodation.
The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Social Development opened an office of the Ministry of Social Development inside one of the most populated prisons in the country to work with inmates and their families six months before their release, strengthening their support network and preparing them for reentry to society.