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South American Prison News

Brazil: According to the Brazilian Ministry of Justice there are an average of two and a half riots a day in Brazilian prisons and jails. The Brazilian prison crisis became evident on March 15-16, 1994, when the Archbishop of Fortaleza was taken hostage by prisoners, along with 14 other visitors, during a prison visit. Fr. Prancis Readon, coordinator of the Prison Pastoral of the Sao Paulo Archdiocese said prisoners rebel when they are frustrated. The main reasons for this are the lack of judicial help, lack of a health system along with the daily violence suffered through torture, beatings and other punishments. Readon said he felt there would be more riots and hostage takings as long as the state continued its policy of not treating prisoners like human beings and citizens. On July 7, 1994, 10 prisoners at the Porto Alegre prison took 24 staff members hostage in the prison hospital. On July 8, 1994, the prisoners, armed with revolvers, escaped from the prison with at least nine hostages in vehicles provided by prison officials in response to their demands. In a series of running gunfights outside of the prison in the city eight of the prisoners and a policemen were killed. The escape ended on July 10, 1994, when the two surviving prisoners surrendered in a luxury hotel and released the last of the three hostages.

The reality of Brazilian prisoners includes a lack of legal assistance, violence, corruption by staff in which police and guards take from the prisoners what their families send them. A major problem is AIDS. One fourth of male prisoners and one third of female prisoners are HIV positive. In the two prison hospitals for the city of Sao Paulo there are always at least 40 AIDS patients, most of them terminal. The Brazilian government is in the midst of a major prison building campaign. [PLN has reported on Brazilian prisons in the past, see Vol. 4, No. 1.]

Ecuador: On June 6, 1994, over 600 Ecuadorian and foreign prisoners began a hunger strike at the Center for Social Rehabilitation (a prison) in Quito, Ecuador. They are demanding faster court hearings and trials. One of the strike leaders was quoted as saying "There are comrades who have been in prison for six years and have never appeared before a judge, others are ready to finish their sentences without having ever been convicted." Prisoners have carried out three other hunger-strikes in the past two years with similar demands, without success. The Center for Social Rehabilitation holds 150 of the more than 550 foreigners held in Ecuador. The foreign prisoners include citizens of the United States, England, Canada, Germany, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Colombia, Spain, Honduras, Italy, Chile, Haiti, Peru, the Dominican Republic and others. According to the Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees, over 70 percent of those held in Ecuadorian prisons are held on drug charges, have been held without being convicted for an average of four years due to the slowness of the judiciary. Ecuador has 9,000 prisoners.

Chile: According to a report released by the Chilean Ministry of Justice, adult prisons in that country held 4,375 children as of April, 1994. Of these, 153 were younger than 11; 1,235 were between 12 and 15 and 2,739 were between 16 and 17 years old. Prison officials state that 77% of the children are charged with property offenses; 6% with crimes against people; 5% for vagrancy; 6% are held under anti-terrorist, drug or weapons laws and the remainder for alcohol offenses. Of the children held in adult prisons only 45% were found to have violated any laws once they were brought before a judge, a process which took, on average, between one and five days.

Chilean government officials have vowed to end the practice of housing children in adult prisons with adult offenders. Their solution: to build $28 million worth of juvenile prisons with special staffing to ensure Chile meets its obligations under the International Children's Rights Convention which states that juvenile prisoners have a right to health, education and rehabilitation .

Uruguay: On June 7, 1994, prisoners at La Libertad (Liberty) prison in Uruguay rioted to protest subhuman prison conditions, overcrowding and corruption. A leader of the 900 prisoners told the Uruguayan weekly Brecha "We want better conditions without hurting anyone. Our only goal is to bring citizen's attention to this." From 1973 to 1985 the prison was used by the military dictatorship to house political prisoners; no one escaped during this time. Since 1985 when a civilian government took power and used it to house social prisoners, there has been an average of one escape a week. Prisoners claim itcosts between $2,500 and $20,000 to "escape".

Uruguay has 3,200 prisoners, 85% of whom have not been convicted of any crime. They are held in conditions of severe overcrowding (cells designed for one or two prisoners hold five or six), locked down 21 hours a day, many cells lack water and/or electricity, most prisoners are between 20-26 years old. Convicted and non-convicted prisoners are held in the same prisons. While most reading material is banned from the prisons, drugs, alcohol and weapons flow freely.

The prisoners demands are for half time for all convicted prisoners, automatic release time for terminally ill prisoners and those over 60; that the Supreme Court visit each prison annually; that all charges be combined to give prisoners one sentence to serve; prompt trials within 120 days with the trial taking no longer than one year and that prison officials follow laws regulating prisoner's rights.

In late July the Uruguayan government announced it was going to transfer all of Libertad's prisoners to other prisons while the prison is rebuilt and the riot damage repaired.

Mexico: On June 21, 1994, prisoners at the Mexicali state prison, in Baja California, rioted after a fight between prisoners escalated. Five prisoners were reported dead and four wounded in the melee. One prisoner reported that the fight erupted as part of a war between a drug trafficking faction of prisoners and a faction seeking better conditions for prisoners after a June 6, 1994, riot over abuses and bad conditions at the prison.

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