This report from the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program posits that policy reforms adopted out of necessity during the pandemic in regards to prison policy, some of which were considered politically unpalatable before the Covid-19 emergency, offer important lessons and in some cases proof of concept for overdue shifts in prison policy. Based on this body of evidence and experience, Latin American governments can and should mobilize to address the systemic weaknesses in prison systems across the region and adopt prison policies that are respectful of human rights and more effectively protect the interests of society at large. The policy decisions made during and in the wake of the pandemic may very well define prison and criminal justice policy in Latin America for the near future. Covid-19 has made glaringly clear a reality that should be the starting point for a new type of reform: prisons and society are intrinsically interdependent and face shared risks as well as responsibilities.
Prison health is public health. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that prison conditions in Latin America, such as overcrowding, limited access to hygiene products, poor ventilation, inadequate nutrition, and deteriorated infrastructure represent important challenges to public health. It has also emphasized the possible public health costs of over-incarceration.
States can and should mobilize to improve prison conditions. Faced with the imminent and grave threat that Covid-19 presented for the prison population and beyond, several countries in Latin America advanced initiatives to address some of the vulnerabilities in their prison systems. In particular, the efforts to reduce overcrowding were diverse and came from all three branches of government. In an area in which prison administrators are too frequently left alone, the involvement of the legislative and judiciary branches in the search for viable responses to the pandemic in the prison context has been refreshing. The efforts to reduce overcrowding were unprecedented.
Governments need to seriously rethink the importance of reducing prison overcrowding. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted what has been reiterated by criminal justice and human rights experts – overcrowding not only violates the rights of persons deprived of liberty but is also extremely dangerous from a public health perspective. Covid-19 serves as a wake-up call for governments in the region to reconsider the laws, policies, and practices that have led to such high levels of overcrowding and inhumane prisons in the first place.
Technology should be used to complement important aspects of prison life. Crisis can and should spark innovation. Such has been the case of the prison systems in the region that attempted to mitigate the worst effects of the restrictions on contact with the outside world by using technology to provide alternative means of communication. Technology can also be beneficial and should be explored to alleviate other collateral consequences of confinement, such as the lack of effective and sufficient educational and rehabilitation programs as well as inadequate medical attention.
Greater transparency is needed about the impact of pandemic-related prison policies. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, several prison systems in the region were already marked by difficulty in the access to statistics and information. During the pandemic, which called for closer scrutiny of the system, there has been a troubling lack of complete and updated data as well as underreporting from States regarding the impact of Covid-19 in prisons. For example, most countries have not released publicly available information as to the impact of the measures taken to alleviate Covid-19’s impact in the prison context, including the number of prisoners released, which renders their evaluation difficult.
Further research is needed for policy design/making. For real transformation to take place, research and science need to be part of the solution. Even while we remain in the midst of the pandemic, a roadmap detailing necessary further research can help to ensure that we learn the right lessons. The knowledge acquired should then be used to design better public policies and build more effective prison systems that respect human rights. This roadmap should include: further study and assessment of Covid-19 impact in prisons across the region, comparative analysis of the different measures taken by countries and their impact, and greater information sharing and cooperation among Latin American countries regarding the impact of Covid-19 and priorities for future policy reform.
María Luisa Romero is a member of the Inter-American Dialogue, former Minister of Government of Panama, and member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. Romero wrote the report in her personal capacity. The brief was co-authored by Luisa Stalman, a senior at Duke University studying Political Science and Latin American History, and Azul Hidalgo Solá, a senior studying International Affairs at The George Washington University. Both Stalman and Hidalgo are former interns with the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program.