Mexico's senate has unanimously approved a wide-ranging prison reform bill, but it's unclear if these measures will be enough to revamp a penitentiary system badly in need of improvement.
On April 27, by a vote of 114 to zero, the senate passed the National Penal Enforcement Law (Ley Nacional de Ejecución Penal), which will now head to the chamber of deputies for final approval.
The head of the senate justice committee, Fernando Yunes Márquez, said the legislation would ensure that Mexico's prisons "will no longer be nests of violations of the rights that our constitution guarantees."
The bill prohibits the use of torture and other "cruel, inhuman or degrading" disciplinary measures, including confinement in cells without light and ventilation. It also bans the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 continuous days.
In addition, the legislation establishes gender-specific rights for incarcerated women, including the right to receive obstetrical-gynecological and pediatric care, as well as adequate and healthy food for their children if they remain with their mothers in prison.
The bill also grants immediate eligibility for release to non-violent offenders convicted of possessing less than five kilograms of cannabis, as well as those convicted of stealing less than the equivalent of 80 minimum salaries (roughly 5,800 pesos, or about US$340).
If the bill becomes law, prison authorities will have four years to implement the reforms.
In a related development, several senators urged congress to pass a measure supported by President Enrique Peña Nieto that would legalize the medicinal use of cannabis before the end of the current legislative session on April 30.
Senator Raúl Elizalde, whose daughter Grace suffers from an epileptic condition that cannabis has shown promise in treating, said a "real urgency" exists to pass the proposal.
"Six months, four months to wait for another legislative period is a long time for a person who has a disease," he said in a press conference.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although the prison reform measures appear to represent a step toward improving Mexico's notoriously troubled penal system, several senators expressed concern that the provisions will prove difficult to implement. Senator Pilar Ortega Martínez, for instance, pointed out that allocating taxpayer funds for prisons -- especially those aimed at improving conditions for inmates -- is generally unpopular.
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At the same time, the bill's unanimous passage in the senate suggests a widespread recognition of the failings of the current prison system. Previous attempts at long-term correctional reforms in Mexico have fallen short of expectations. The July 2015 escape of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from the country's highest-security facility, and the deadly riot at the Topo Chico prison in February of this year, may have provided momentum to this latest effort.
Whether that momentum translates into concrete changes, however, remains to be seen.