Prison conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. Problems included overcrowding, use of police stations as detention facilities, a shortage of prison guards, and inadequate health care.
Physical Conditions: Problems included overcrowding, lack of medical services, lack of potable water, inadequate ventilation, lighting, and sewage treatment. As of September the prison system had an intended capacity of 8,576 persons but held 15,124 prisoners (14,056 male inmates and 1,068 female). In an effort to alleviate overcrowding, during the year the government released 901 inmates who had completed two-thirds of their sentences and released another 101 inmates on parole.
Authorities held men and women, and juveniles and adults, separately. Pretrial detainees shared cells with convicted prisoners due to space constraints, but prison authorities began to separate the two groups during the year. Through September, authorities separated 48 percent of pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners. As of September pretrial detainees were separated from convicted prisoners only in the prisons of Algarrobos, Llano Bonito, and La Chorrera. Although prison conditions for women were generally better than those for men, both populations remained in overcrowded facilities, with poor medical care and lack of basic supplies for personal hygiene. Juvenile pretrial and custodial detention centers also suffered from overcrowding and poor conditions. Inmates had inadequate supervision. There were only 726 prison guards nationwide. Funds to hire 200 new prison guards were approved in June, and by September 125 new prison guards were hired and in training. In all prisons inmates complained of limited time outside cells and limited access for family members. Small jails attached to local police stations sometimes held prisoners for days or weeks, and police officers who guarded them lacked the necessary custodial training to prevent abuses.
Prison medical care was inadequate due to lack of personnel and medical resources. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that there were three physicians at the La Joya-La Joyita complex, one in the women’s prison, one in the Colon prison, one in El Renacer, and one in Tinajitas. Clinics within La Joya and La Joyita prisons provided first-aid assistance but lacked the capacity to attend to serious medical problems. Between January and June, there were 20,026 cases of medical assistance to inmates nationwide, compared with 37,453 during all of 2012. La Joyita had a 60-bed clinic, but it remained underused due to the lack of guards to watch ill detainees. In many cases authorities transferred patients to public clinics instead, but there often were difficulties arranging for transportation of the inmates to public clinics. Only one ambulance was in service. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases were common among the prison population. Between January and September, an estimated 45 percent of medical appointments were missed due to a lack of escorts from the National Police. Of the 167 complaints by prisoners to the Office of the Ombudsman as of November, the overwhelming majority were related to poor or inadequate medical attention or problems with the transportation system to attend medical appointments.
As of November four inmates were killed in inmate-on-inmate violence in prisons, five died of HIV, five died of heart attacks, two died from tuberculosis, one died of cancer, and five died of natural causes.
As of September, 3,904 inmates were enrolled in education programs inside and outside the prisons, and 1,829 worked inside and outside the prisons. The system continued to apply the “2x1” reduction in time served (one day reduced for each two days of work or study).
Administration: The Ministry of Government oversees all prisons in the country through the National Directorate of the Penitentiary System (DGSP). The law governing the penitentiary system does not address promotion by meritocracy and lacks a career development plan as well as a salary scale. During the year the government raised the salary for prison guards from 500 balboas ($500) to 690 balboas ($690) a month, but as of September the Ombudsman’s Office could not confirm if the increase had gone into effect. In the first nine months of the year, the DGSP fired five prison guards for corruption or administrative errors and suspended two prison guards pending investigations. A hearing scheduled for October by the Second Criminal Court for 12 persons (nine police, two civilian prison guards, and the Juvenile Center director) facing trial over a 2011 fire in the juvenile detention center was postponed pending a Supreme Court ruling.
A software update for prison recordkeeping was operational in three prisons (La Chorrera, Llano Marin, and La Joyita); the rest of the prisons used an older version. Judges may order probation as an alternative to sentencing for nonviolent juvenile offenders. During the year judges placed 551 nonviolent juvenile offenders on probation, which required psychological counseling, regular school attendance, and regular meetings with a social worker. Eleven juvenile offenders had been granted house arrest as of December. The new accusatory justice system, active in four provinces at year’s end, includes provisions for plea bargaining and thus reduces imprisonment of nonviolent adult offenders (see section 1.e.).
The 2011 pilot program for electronic monitoring for nonviolent pretrial inmates was suspended during the year. The devices were being repurposed for enforcement of the new femicide law, which stipulates that bracelets are required to enforce restraining orders.
Prisoners could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhumane conditions, but authorities did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner. The Ombudsman’s Office negotiated and petitioned on behalf of prisoners and received complaints about prison conditions. The Ombudsman’s Office also conducted weekly prison visits, and the government generally did not monitor its meetings with prisoners. As of November the Ombudsman’s Office had received one complaint of physical abuse committed by a PNP agent.
Prisoners at most facilities had reasonable access to visitors and could observe their religious practices. The Catholic nongovernmental organization (NGO) Justice and Peace made regular visits and reported unobstructed access by various church groups of different faiths. Authorities limited prison access for religious groups to a maximum of two religious representatives at a time and required them to submit an annual action plan to justify access to prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers, including a UN Office on Drugs and Crime delegation, who subsequently issued a comprehensive report on corruption within the prison system. In October the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held a hearing to address problems with overcrowding, illegal conduct, and lengthy detentions in the country’s prisons.
Improvements: The government took several steps to improve prison and detention center conditions. To improve recordkeeping, it installed a new software program in three prisons that includes comprehensive information on every inmate, including data on legal status, hearing, and sentencing dates. The judicial branch, however, was not connected to the penitentiary system’s database, which delayed submissions of paperwork required for scheduling hearings.
As of September, 260 prison guards and 63 percent of the administrative staff had received training on penitentiary law, human rights, women’s issues, the new accusatory system, and the Tokyo, Bangkok, and Torture conventions at the Penitentiary Training Academy, in collaboration with the School of Human Rights of the Ombudsman’s Office and prosecutors from the Public Ministry.