Mexico acknowledges failed prison system in new reform bill

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter in Mexico City after his arrest. Jan. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Mexico’s senate has unanimously approved a bill aiming to reform the country’s jails. The National Penal Enforcement Law, which will now need final approval from the state’s chamber of deputies, has generated concern over whether the new regulations will do enough to improve the notoriously inept prison system.

The bill proposes wide-ranging benefits, according to the head of the senate justice commission, Fernando Yunes, who said the new regulations “give Mexicans and the country the concept that those who are in prison are people who have rights, that should be treated with dignity and should be an active part of society in a positive way when they complete their sentence.”

Specific proposed changes include the prohibition of torture and other “cruel, inhuman or degrading” disciplinary measures, reports Insight Crime. This includes prolonged solitary confinement as well as confinement in cells without light and ventilation.

The bill also establishes new rights for incarcerated women, such as the right to receive obstetrical-gynecological and pediatric care, and adequate and healthy food for their children if they remain incarcerated with their mothers. This is but a small step forward for women behind bars in Mexico, where more than 12,000 live in substandard, dangerous conditions, according to a study released in April 2015.

In line with Mexico’s increasingly slack marijuana laws, the bill also grants immediate eligibility for release to nonviolent offenders convicted of possessing less than 5 kilograms of cannabis. Those convicted of stealing less than the equivalent of 80 minimum salaries (roughly 5,800 pesos, or about US$340) are also eligible for release.

Cristina Díaz Salazar, one of the 114 senators who unanimously passed the bill, said the regulations set a new foundation for the treatment of people deprived of their liberties and will work to eliminate corruption within the current penitentiary system.

Other senators are concerned that allocating funds for the prison system will be unpopular with taxpayers and difficult to implement, according to Insight Crime. Meanwhile, human rights activists doubt the bill will enact reform quickly enough, considering prison authorities will still have four years to implement the new policies.

This skepticism stems from widespread distrust over the government’s ability to address problems in the prison system, which is in desperate need of improvement. Pressure on the Mexican government to reform its penitentiaries has mounted after incidents like the embarrassing escape of drug kingpin El Chapo from the country’s most secure prison last year, and the death of at least 49 inmates during a gang riot in a Nuevo León prison in February.

What’s worse, dozens of Mexican prisons are overcrowded and run by inmates, the National Human RIghts Commission said in a report last month, to the extent that criminal activities continue unhindered behind bars. The report also described many inmates sneaking televisions, cell phones and weapons into their cells.

Some of these problems stem from the fact that 40 percent of inmates are kept behind bars even though they are still waiting for rulings in their cases, said Sen. Angélica de la Peña on behalf of the Human Rights Commission.

“Many of these people,” she added, “if the new penal system had the levels of validity that we all desire, could and should be facing their trials in freedom.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com