A recent report from a Mexican NGO tackles the crisis in the nation's penitentiary system, unearthing a number of critical factors and providing a handful of potential solutions.
"Prisons in Mexico: What For?" (pdf), published by Mexico Evalua, addresses the title question by first pointing to Article 18 of the nation's constitution, which establishes that jails are to "bring about the reintegration of convicts into society and ensure that they do not commit more crimes."
According to the report's authors Leslie Solis, Nestor de Buen and Sandra Ley, this represents a highly progressive approach for a constitution that is nearly a century old, and a philosophy that could serve as a bulwark against the nation's broader security problems. Unfortunately, however, there is a great deal of distance between the lofty philosophy and the reality inside the nation's prisons. For instance, recidivism is a growing problem inside Mexico; the proportion of all crimes committed by repeat criminals has ticked up by two percentage points, to 15.5 percent, from 2010 to 2012.
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Furthermore, the conditions inside prisons are often not conducive to a criminal's future reintegration. Acts of extreme violence are now regrettably common; over the past five years, there have been massacres killing more than a dozen prisoners in facilities in Juarez, Tijuana, Gomez Palacio, Mazatlan, Durango, and many others. A new report from Mexico's National Center for Human Rights calculates that the number of violent incidents in prisons has doubled over the past three years. Human rights within prisons are regularly abused, whether by overwhelmed and poorly trained guards or by other inmates.
Related to these other trends, Mexico's prison population has grown steadily in recent decades. In 1995, the last year the system was operating at or beneath capacity, there were 90,000 prisoners nationwide; currently, the authors write, there are 240,000, which is 124 percent over intended capacity.
According to the report, the failure of Mexico's prison system has exacerbated the government's attempts to rein in the various organized crime groups. Rather than serving to steer petty criminals away from more serious crimes, overstuffed prisons place low-level offenders side by side with more serious and influential criminal groups, who they often must depend upon to survive on the inside. Furthermore, rather than serving as a neutral territory in the wars between organized criminal groups, the prisons are now just another arena in the fight.
InSight Crime Analysis
Perhaps the most important issue driving Mexico's penitentiary dysfunction is the justice system's over-reliance on jail terms for a wide variety of offences. In Mexico, 95 percent of all crimes are punishable by prison sentences, indicating a failure to explore alternative disciplinary measures for less serious, or nonviolent crimes. For instance, of all the convicts in prison under state charges, more than half are behind bars for theft -- in most cases of small sums. Mexico also suffers from often illogical sentencing policies; in some states, maximum sentences for murder are less than those for theft.
Because of the mixing of violent and nonviolent offenders, low-level criminals living in close proximity to cartel members turns prisons into channels for organized crime, as the former must often abide by the demands of the latter to guarantee their safety; precisely the opposite of the Constitution's intended role for the system.
An even greater problem are the prisoners who have not been convicted of any crime. An estimated 40 percent of all people living in Mexican prisons are there due to pretrial detention. If Mexico only used pretrial detention for serious offenses, the problem of overcapacity could be much closer to being solved.
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The report's authors recommend reducing the reliance on prison as a punishment; a measure that nonetheless faces significant obstacles. One is that when security problems are a major political issue, as they currently are in Mexico, putting more people in jail for longer is the most politically popular position. Anything that appears to reduce the likelihood of criminals facing legal consequences is an anathema.
Furthermore, Mexico's most significant foreign partner -- the US -- is one of the worst possible internationals models. Many of the symptoms plaguing Mexico, including knee-jerk public desire for heavy sentencing, penitentiary dysfunction and massive increases in the prison population in recent decades, are even more prevalent in the US. More useful models, such as the case of Finland, that the authors discuss in some depth, are geographically remote and far removed from the Mexican public security debate.
None of these obstacles are impossible to overcome, but what has been lacking in Mexico is a strong movement within the political culture to drive the cause forward. This was true during the Calderon administration, notwithstanding some sporadic efforts to address the prison system, and it is true today under Enrique Peña Nieto. As the authors point out, in the 184 pages of Peña Nieto's National Development Plan, which serves as a road map for his administration's agenda, there is only a single passing reference to prison reform.