Riots, abuse, gang control and overpopulation are just some of the problems that plague Mexican prisons, but despite the issues 700 million pesos (US $36.5 million) allocated for their improvement have been left unspent.
If the money is not used before the end of the year, it will be returned to the federal treasury.
In an interview with Milenio Televisión, National Security Commissioner Renato Sales said the funds were made available to state governments in order to buy medicine, uniforms, sporting goods or any other items that would help to entertain inmates and decrease the level of violence in the nation’s prisons.
He attributed the state governments’ failure to spend the money to a lack of political will.
“I think it’s because it’s not a politically advantageous issue . . . it takes a lot of work to explain to society that you have to feed the inmates well when you can’t feed the people in a given neighborhood well,” he said.
Politically expedient or not, the necessity to address problems in the prison system is emphasized by the frequency with which they occur.
Breakouts are also relatively common and in January video footage showed inmates engaged in extortion via telephone in clear view of the guards.
There are 365 prisons in Mexico, of which 20 are federal penitentiaries. Together they incarcerate 210,000 prisoners and according to 2016 statistics, 150 of the jails are overcrowded.
A government report prepared by the National Security Commission earlier this year identified overpopulation of prisons as a root cause of other problems that plague the system.
Last week, Sales made an offer to state governments to transfer inmates imprisoned in state jails on federal charges to federal prisons because, unlike the rest of the system, they are currently not burdened by overpopulation. The offer will apply to an estimated 10,000 inmates.
Legal reforms and changes to the criminal justice system have eased some pressure on the prison system by facilitating the release of inmates who committed less serious crimes than those that demand preventative custody, such as homicide, rape, kidnapping and human trafficking.
However, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera warned last week that 11,000 prisoners who have been released from prisons in the capital over the past two years, including 3,500 who committed violent robberies, could be behind a recent wave of assaults in the city.
Questioned about Mancera’s view, Sales said that he agreed with the mayor, adding that it was necessary to carry out a review of which crimes deserve preventative custody.
The crime of firearms possession should be added to the list, he said, especially when it involves assault weapons.