Mexico’s penitentiaries, long plagued by overpopulation and underfunding, are to get new attention and new funding. Plus a new human rights report offers some observations that might help guide further improvement efforts.
The Interior Secretariat has requested 6.7 billion pesos (US $368 million) from the Finance Secretariat to implement infrastructure and maintenance projects in Mexico´s four maximum security penitentiaries.
The money will be spent on building new facilities for the four jails, extending their service life by up to 20 years.
One of them is El Altiplano in the State of México, the home of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the prison from which he escaped on July 11 of last year. Altiplano was built between 1988 and 1990, and received its first inmates in 1991.
Built to hold 724 prisoners, by the end of 2014 its population was 1,107.
Another matter of concern for officials at the Interior Secretariat is governability within the jail, for which the administrative areas will be strengthened. “The professionalization of the warden and security staff will be improved, and the staff shall . . . receive quality and specialized training, based on international performance standards.”
The previous warden and several other prison staff have been charged in connection with Guzmán’s escape.
The new measures will seek to put an end to the conditions of self-government that many inmates maintain within the prison, along with illicit activities such as extortion or bribery. “The renovation of El Altiplano shall reduce all criminal activities and corruption within its walls,” said the Interior Secretariat.
The other three federal penitentiaries, located in Puente Grande, Jalisco —from which Guzmán escaped in 2001 — Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Tepic, Nayarit, will also receive a similar overhaul with the main goal being to ensure the best possible operating conditions.
While the renovation project planned by the executive addresses important issues, overpopulation remains a constant concern for some observers, such as México Evalúa, a public policy analysis center, which examines the issue in a report entitled “Quality and Justice.”
The coordinator of the report, Layda Negrete, said the most recent data showed that overpopulation at El Altiplano is at 11%, which she considered “worrisome.”
Negrete said her report took into consideration an evaluation conducted by the National Commission for Human Rights, which not only measured protection of or compliance with human rights, but also how safe the penitentiary was, “and El Altiplano obtained really low scores.”
With regard to security, the penitentiary scored zero due to the fact that it doesn’t have enough guards.
“That zero score preceded El Chapo’s escape and was worrisome then. They have now made the decision to bring him back to the same prison, and one can’t help but notice that the facilities aren’t ‘fireproof.’”
It was also illogical that Guzmán should be held in a facility whose architectural plans he has because they were provided by its own staff to members of Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, Negrete said.
The lawyer believes that Mexico’s penal system is outdated given that over 60% of the population currently in jail is there for “very minor crimes.”
“As legislators worry about security they have increased penalties, and the authorities have gone after minor delinquents instead of focusing on major ones.”
Negrete thinks minor crimes do not warrant preventive prison time and should be punished with shorter sentence periods, allowing authorities to focus on more important crimes.