CELS: prisoners’ rights still absent in Argentina
A view of a prisoners’ mutiny in Villa Devoto prison in 2008.
‘Practices rooted in the dictatorship continue’
by Marcela Valente
Nearly 29 years after the demise of the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina, successive democratic governments have failed to find a humane way of running the prison system. Preventable deaths, torture and appalling conditions for inmates continue to be reported.
“Practices rooted in the dictatorship are still going on in prisons, such as torture, abuse and other mistreatment which must be eradicated,” Paula Litvachky, a lawyer for the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), said.
Of course, there is no real “continuity” with the seven-year regime that kidnapped, tortured and forcibly disappeared thousands of people, but abuses persist in prisons due to complicity, indifference and lack of accountability and oversight, she said.
Litvachky, head of the justice and security department of CELS, is a co-author of the chapter on prisons in the report titled Derechos Humanos en Argentina – Informe 2012 (Human Rights in Argentina: 2012 Report), presented this month by the NGO.
The chapter, “El modelo de la prisión-depósito. Medidas urgentes en los lugares de detención en la Argentina” (The Prison as Warehouse: Urgent steps for detention centres in Argentina), describes cases of humiliating treatment, torture, beatings, arbitrary transfers, excessive punishment, lack of hygiene and lack of access to healthcare.
In this scenario, CELS censures political and judicial authorities for denying the problem and turning a blind eye, and criticizes “public indifference” to the serious violations of human rights that occur behind bars.
There is structural deprivation of detainees’ rights, not only because of the high level of violence and preventable deaths in prison but also because of deficiencies in healthcare, nutrition and hygiene, as well as overcrowding, the report says.
CELS has long complained that some of the worst human rights violations in the country take place in the Argentine prison system, and especially in the eastern province of Buenos Aires, which holds 50 percent of the total prison population.
In Buenos Aires, the most populous province, there were over 29,000 people in late 2011 incarcerated in facilities designed to accommodate only 18,640 inmates. According to the CELS report, overcrowding in some prisons is so severe that there is only one bed for every three detainees, who have to sleep in shifts.
And in even more extreme cases, convicts sleep on filthy floors, amid nauseating odours, with no water in their cells. In addition, they have no access to healthcare or medicines, and are fed inadequate rations of nutritionally deficient food. In addition to these structural failings, arbitrary treatment and abuse is handed out to prisoners as well as their visiting relatives, to the point that visitors may be forced to strip and undergo body searches. Because of this humiliating treatment, some inmates forgo visits from family members.
Some of the torture methods are the same as those formerly used by the dictatorship on political prisoners, like the “submarine,” the practice of submerging the victim’s head in water to produce a near-death experience.
Prisoners have also reported being forced to take ice-cold showers, receiving beatings with batons or hoses, and being forced to run through the yard naked. Others have testified to being tortured with electric prods on the genitals and other parts of the body.
In Litvachky’s view, the Argentine Senate should urgently ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which has already been approved by the Lower House of Congress.
The Provincial Committee for Memory, a body of the provincial government of Buenos Aires, has received 235 complaints of torture in prisons, but only 21 of the victims have testified in court due to fear of reprisals, the report says.
In Unit 51 “Magdalena”, a women’s prison in the city of Mercedes in Buenos Aires province, an inmate suffered a miscarriage after a brutal beating meted out as punishment by a prison guard, according to a complaint in the CELS report.
There have been cases of people being confined in isolation for weeks, although the rules only allow a maximum of 23 hours solitary confinement. “Violent and invasive” body searches are carried out, in which men and women prisoners are required to strip naked and spread their buttocks apart for inspection.
The CELS study draws attention to “the extraordinarily high frequency” of fires in prisons leading to fatalities among prisoners, as well as the large number of suicides and violent deaths attributed to fights between inmates.
“The prison staff decides whether inmates can have visits or make phone calls,” the report says. The guards “destroy inmates’ personal property,” deny them transport to hospital, and arbitrarily transfer them between prison facilities, it adds.
There are also reports of corruption and theft on the part of prison staff, drug trafficking within the prison, arms being smuggled in to inmates, and even cases of prisoners being forced by the guards to make armed sorties to commit crimes.
The denunciations in the CELS study are consistent with the findings of the Report on Human Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, presented this month by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The IACHR, which is part of the human rights system of the Organization of American States, documents “the high incidence of prison violence” in the region’s detention centres, which it describes as “areas that go unmonitored and lack oversight, in which arbitrariness and corruption have prevailed,” as well as the practice of torture.
Livatchky said that in Argentina, concern is primarily focused on the conditions faced by inmates in the province of Buenos Aires, where high levels of violence persist amidst a lack of oversight and controls.
“We need a sustained policy to reform and oversee the prison system,” said the CELS lawyer. “This is a huge shortcoming of the democratic system.”
In CELS’ view, the prison service should be demilitarized, and a serious debate should be held on the real purpose of the prison system.
So far, some officials and judges committed to change have raised their voices, but only as isolated individuals, Livatchky said.
“Overall, the response is inadequate, and reports of torture are not declining. Serious investigations are needed, to send a strong signal that such practices are no longer tolerated,” she said.